In 1975, Robert Lee Elder became the first African American to play in the Masters. He received a lot of mail in the run-up to the competition. Fearing for his safety, he rented two houses in town and continued traveling between them over the tournament week, and he always had somebody around him when he visited to eat. Elder and other black players on the road were forced to change their clothes within the parking zone at the Monsanto Open in 1968 in Pensacola, Florida, an equivalent tournament at which he claimed his first PGA Tour victory six years later to qualify for the Masters. Members of the club wouldn’t allow African Americans in their clubhouse.
A spectator picked up Elder’s ball on a hole and hurled it through a hedge while playing in a tournament in Memphis, Tennessee. Elder was given a free drop after another pro golfer observed the event. Elder tried to stay focused on the game, but unlike the majority of players on the road, he was continually disturbed by rowdy fans, receiving mail and threatening phone calls on a regular basis.
Family and Childhood
Elder, the tenth child of Charles and Almeta Elder, was born in Dallas, Texas. When his father was murdered in Germany during WWII, he was nine years old, and his mother died three months later. Elder was 12 years old when he was transported to Los Angeles to measure with his aunt.
Elder routinely skipped courses to work as a caddie, and he dropped out after two years at Manual Arts High School.
Elder originally met Rose Harper during a golf event in Washington, D.C., and the two married in 1966. Rose threw up her golfing career after getting married to become his manager. They divorced subsequently. Lee Elder’s second wife is Sharon Elder.
Elder didn’t play a whole 18-hole round of golf until he was 16 years old. He worked in pro shops and locker rooms, as well as caddying, where he honed his game by observing his clients and playing when he could. Elder’s game has matured enough for him to begin hustling. After playing a match against heavyweight boxer Louis, Ted Rhodes, Louis’s golf coach, took Elder under his wing for three years. Elder was ready to improve his game under Rhodes’ instruction and began competing in events.
Elder saved enough money in 1967 to attend PGA Tour qualifying school. He finished ninth out of 122 competitors and received his tour card for 1968. That year, he finished 40th on the cash list, earning almost $38,000. Elder’s first season was highlighted by a heartbreaking playoff loss to Nicklaus at the American Golf Classic. Elder fell against Nicklaus in overtime on the fifth hole.
Elder won his first PGA Tour event in 1974, the Monsanto Open, which earned him a spot in the Master’s Tournament in Augusta, Georgia the following year. This was the first time an African American had qualified for the Masters since the tournament’s inception in 1934, which also happened to be Elder’s birth year. Elder missed the cut in the 1975 Masters after shooting 74 on day one and 78 on day two. He became the first African American to qualify for the Ryder Cup in 1979. Elder joined the Senior PGA Tour at the age of fifty in 1984.
The Seniors Tour Introduced Me to New Career Opportunities
In 1984, at the age of 50, Elder joined the Seniors PGA Tour. During his second year on the Tour, he won his first tournament and went on to win a string of other tournaments, including the Digital Classic, Merrill Lynch, and Hilton Seniors. He also won two Coca-Cola slam Japan competitions in the mid-1980s.
Elder spoke out against country clubs that denied Black golfers membership in 1990. Elder has supported Summer Youth Golf Development Programs, generated funds for the United Negro College Fund, and served on the Goodwill Industries advisory boards.
Elder took part in the annual ceremonial start of the Masters in April 2021.
Lee Elder, the first African-American to compete in the Masters, a four-time PGA Tour winner, and a Ryder Cup participant, died on Sunday at the age of 87. There were no immediate specifics on the cause of death, but Elder had been suffering from respiratory problems. Elder died while visiting his stepdaughter Dory’s house in San Diego, according to Arthur Johnson, a Jacksonville resident and a friend of Elder’s for more than 50 years.
“When I talked to him on Thanksgiving, he sounded incredibly powerful and in high spirits,” Johnson added. “It’s quite difficult. He was my big brother… we were best buddies.”
Elder was raised in the Dallas area, moved to Los Angeles after both of his parents died, and learned to play golf from Ted Rhodes, a great player, and teacher. He was also friends with world heavyweight boxing champion and passionate golfer Joe Louis, who helped guide him to the United Golf Association Tour, which was the only professional option for Black golfers at the time.