News & Opinion

Elder faces one more hurdle in golf: Hall of Fame

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Lee Elder's life still revolves around golf.

The first black man to compete in the Masters, in 1975, Elder, 82, complained that he forgot his brace and his right knee ached, so he begged off when asked by participants in a shotgun outing to poke a few drives. He was at the World Golf Hall of Fame recently for a Q&A and reception, which followed afternoon golf at The Slammer & The Squire. It was part of a concerted and well-intentioned effort by the hall to honor February’s Black History Month, but it couldn't disguise the fact that only one of the 150 hall members is black. That won't change when the five newest inductees are honored Sept. 26 at the biennial ceremony in New York.

As Elder rode in the passenger seat of a golf cart down the ninth fairway, the hall's tower came into view.

"I'm in there," he said. "Well, my picture and things are, at least. I just haven't been inducted yet. I still believe it will happen. With all those categories they have, I should be in it someway, don't you think?"

Anyone who knows his story, rising from the caddie ranks to dominate the United Golf Association, the tour for blacks in the era of the PGA's Caucasian-only rule, to earning his card in 1967 and winning four times on the PGA Tour and qualifying for the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team, would agree that there should be a place for one of golf's pioneers. But Elder's words are neither tinged with bitterness nor self-promotion. Rather, he touted the accomplishments of his mentor, Teddy Rhodes.

"Before they induct Tiger Woods, they must induct Teddy," Elder said of Rhodes, who played in the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera and died at age 55 in 1969. (In 2009, the PGA of America granted Rhodes posthumous membership.) "I met him at age 17. He was like a father to me. He was the Jackie Robinson of the PGA Tour. A lot of people say Charlie Sifford (who was inducted into the hall in 2004). Charlie was the first to get a (PGA Tour) card, but Teddy was the first to play out there."

Speaking of Woods, Elder still chuckles when he tells the story of how he flew to Atlanta on the morning of the 1997 Masters final round to see Woods become the first black to don a green jacket, only to be stopped for speeding by a state trooper.

"He was a brother (a black man), and I tried to explain to him, 'History is about to be made in your state. Tiger Woods is going to win the Masters,’ " Elder said. "He handed me the ticket and said, 'Who is Tiger Woods? I don't know anything about golf.' "

To Elder, that day 20 years ago when Woods won his first of 14 majors marked a new line in the sand for black golf. 

"My appearance did a lot, but it didn't make half the impact that Tiger winning did," Elder said. "You saw the African-American community take to playing golf, but that's kind of tapered off, and the reason why is because of the situation he was involved in,” he said, alluding to the 2009 domestic disturbance outside of Woods’ home in Windermere, Fla., and resulting sex scandal. “The Tiger image is not as highly acceptable as it was before. I think he could've been more involved in the African-American community, and he would've if his father (Earl, who died in 2006) were around a little longer. I really think that would've happened."

Just as convincingly, Elder hangs on to his belief that he and Rhodes will have their enshrinement day.

"I feel like too much politics is involved in making those decisions, but someday he'll get in. And someday I'll get in, too," Elder said. "I just might not be around to see it."

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak