Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play at The Masters, passed away at the age of 87 on Monday according to the PGA Tour.
Elder, who broke the color barrier of the PGA Tour’s most notable tournament in 1975, was honored at the 2021 Masters as an honorary starter in the ceremonial first tee shot along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
In an interview with CNN in 2015, Elder called his Masters debut a “very nerve-racking experience.”
“I was shaking so badly, I did not know if I was even going to be able to tee up the ball,” Elder told CNN. “How I got through it I do not know, just with the help of the Almighty I got there and was able to put my ball on the tee.”
Elder, who broke into golf during the 1960s and 1970s, and became one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, but also dealt with many of the same issues Jackie Robinson and Willie O’Ree, who broke color barriers in baseball and hockey, faced.
Elder turned pro in 1959, two years before the racial prohibition was removed from PGA by-laws after legal pressure from California Attorney General Stanley Mosk.
That didn’t stop Elder as he played in United Golfers Association (UGA) tournaments for African American players. according to the PGA, Elder thrived in the UGA winning four UGA Negro National Opens and, in 1966, had a stretch in which he won 18 of 22 starts. Additionally he participated in 448 PGA Tour events winning four. Elder also won another eight events on the PGA Champions Tour.
Elder, a native of Dallas, TX and the youngest of ten children, lost both of his parents before he was 10 and was taken in by his Aunt Sarah who he lived with in Texas, Kansas and Los Angeles.
“My aunt was an incredible person,” Elder wrote in Golf Digest in 2019 after being named the first Black man to win the Bob Jones Award. “She gave me love and discipline, didn’t let me get too far out of line. Her resources were limited, but she carried herself with great dignity, communicated well with people and taught me right from wrong. I was on my own after about age 16, but she got me to a point where I could care for myself.”
Elder got his start in golf as a teen caddie, playing his first round at the age of 16 with scavenged golf balls and wooden-shafted clubs bought at a second-hand store. Elder soon became known as a hustler in Dallas, winning money by playing on one leg, on his knees or using a cross-handed grip. Eventually, Elder joined forces with Titanic Thompson, a well known hustler, touring the country.