Golf writer shares how Masters’ 1st Black player rises through determination and grit to a place at the pinnacle of the game
(Editor's note: This commentary also appears in the African American Golfer's Digest.)
The portly fellow with a huge grin on his round face interrupted his lunch on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National Golf Club to greet me with a firm handshake.
“You must be the Pete McDaniel,’’ he said, as if to distinguish me from all of the other Pete McDaniels roaming the grounds that Masters week in 1998. “Looking pretty good there, young man.’’
The greeting was in jest, as we had met at the Masters the year before through a mutual friend. The man had traveled to Augusta for Tiger Woods’ historic dismantling of the 1997 Masters field en route to a 12-stroke victory, one that signaled a passing of the torch from golf’s GOAT (Jack Nicklaus) to his true heir apparent.
“And you are definitely Mr. Lee Elder,’’ I said with a laugh. “It’s a pleasure to see you again.’’
“My pleasure,’’ he said, chuckling and taking his seat to resume his meal.
“Would you like something to eat?’’ his wife, Sharon, asked.
I declined, explaining that I had to walk with Woods during his practice round, and that I could spare only a few minutes to discuss a book project that Elder wanted to undertake.
“So, you’re writing my book,’’ Elder said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.’’
Somewhat taken aback, I reminded him that I had not agreed to write his biography. We had only briefly tossed the idea around in a telephone conversation. I was hesitant to commit because I was still helping Woods’ dad, Earl, promote his best-seller Training a Tiger, which I co-authored and figured I wouldn’t have much free time between my beats at Golf Digest, where I was a senior writer, and my responsibilities as a single father.
I hate that we never came to an agreement on the book, for his is a fascinating tale of how far determination, grit, a caddie’s feel for the game and a heart bigger than his home state of Texas can spirit one up arguably the steepest mountain in all of sports.
Elder finds himself at the peak of that mountain as recorded in the most recent chapter of that unfinished book. Next April, he will stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the first tee at Augusta National with two other legends of golf, Nicklaus and Gary Player, as an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters. In addition, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced that the club will sponsor scholarships in Elder’s name at Paine College, a historically Black school in Augusta. The club also committed to funding a women’s golf team at Paine as part of the honor bestowed upon the first African-American invited to compete in the Masters.
"The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters [in 1975] and stand at that first tee was my dream,’’ Elder said. “To have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life.
“So, to be invited back to the first tee one more time, to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters, means the world to me. It also gives me great pride to know that my first Masters appearance continues to make a positive impact on others.’’
There is little doubt that Elder’s first Masters ended an era of open discrimination against minorities by Augusta National and began an era of inclusion for the Masters Tournament. However, it failed to heal the wounds of exclusion suffered by Elder’s predecessors, most notably Charlie Sifford.
Sifford won one “unofficial’’ PGA Tour event (the 1957 Long Beach Open) and two “official’’ events (1967 Greater Hartford Open and 1969 Los Angeles Open) but never received an invitation from the Masters Tournament Committee. He claimed that every time he was in position to receive an invitation, the committee would move the goal posts.
Sifford openly expressed his displeasure with Augusta National and swore that he never would set foot on its grounds. The only Black inductee to the World Golf Hall of Fame died in 2015 having kept his promise.
It is my experience that change is rarely initiated by those guilty of resistance to it. The back story suggests that is true of the Lee Elder honor. According to my sources, the idea began with a former employee of the PGA of America, Wendell Haskins. It made its way to the Masters Tournament Committee via various channels.
Regardless of the route, the honor is timely and well-deserved in a country soul-searching a long history of division and inequality. Recently heightened tensions have exposed the cavernous divisions along racial and social lines. The 86-year-old Elder personifies not only the past but hope for a better future. His is an American story of hurdles, hustling and humility.
Elder’s journey to fame if not fortune in the game has been well-documented. Born July 14, 1934 in Dallas, Robert Lee Elder learned the game as a caddie, like most of his contemporaries. He gained a good amount of recognition in partnership with famed hustler Titanic Thompson. Elder forged a successful career on various black golf tours before qualifying for the PGA Tour in 1967 along with several other notables including Deane Beman, Bob Murphy and Tony Jacklin.
Elder won the 1974 Pensacola Open to qualify for the 1975 Masters. He won three more times on Tour, competed in the Ryder Cup and successfully on the Senior PGA Tour, with eight victories in the 1980s. His ambassadorship in the game is noteworthy, as well.
Father Time, the undefeated one, has taken a toll on Elder’s health. Yet, it is not in his nature to complain. Humility is his armor against the slings and arrows of old age and an unrelenting assault by those who continue to grudgingly grip the reins of oppression.
Lee Elder has seen it all. Now, he is basking in the glory of a legacy of achievement.
From my view looking up to the top of the mountain, he looks pretty good.
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