From Barrier Breaker To Elder Statesman

Lee Elder reflects on his remarkable voyage during a special visit to USGA headquarters

By Michael Trostel, USGA
October 5, 2012

Speaking at Golf House, Lee Elder addressed his humble beginnings in the game, the racism he encountered over the years and his surprisingly proudest moment as a golfer. (USGA/Amanda Brown)

Growing up in the Dallas area in the 1940s, Lee Elder created his own golf holes in a field. He was there from dawn to dusk, often playing against other kids for pennies or nickels.

Back then, the courses in the area weren’t integrated. So the entire golf universe for the boy who grew up to become the first African American to play in the Masters had consisted of a 7-iron, the field and his dreams. He dreamed of becoming great – improving his game, winning tournaments and making a living by playing golf.

Ultimately he did, winning four times on the PGA Tour and eight times on the Champions Tour, but the journey was filled with obstacles that required both hard work and mental toughness.

The challenges began early for Elder, who had lost both his parents by age 9, when he and his older brother moved to Wichita Falls, Texas, to live with their aunt. Each morning he would get up early and follow his older brother to the golf course to caddie and earn some money.

“I’d watch him come home at night and put money on the table,” said Elder. “So I decided if he was going to do that, I was going to do that.”

Elder learned to play golf by studying the swings of the people he caddied for. One of the members gave a 7-iron to young Lee. Despite not being able to play an actual golf course, Elder was hooked right away.

“It was not like the other sports where you were playing with a team where you have a lot of help,” said Elder. “I think what intrigued me was the thinking process of trying to get from one place to the next with the fewest amount of shots.”  

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Elder’s aunt moved the family to Los Angeles when he was 14 years old. The move was paramount to his development as a golfer. Elder continued to caddie and after practicing for five years, he finally had access to a golf course.

In Los Angeles, Elder also met Ted Rhodes, a talented player in the area, and began traveling with him as his regular caddie. Rhodes, called “Rags” because he dressed so well, played professionally on the United Golfers Association (UGA) Tour with the financial backing of black entertainers such as Joe Louis, Billy Eckstine and Sammy Davis Jr.

Rhodes gave Elder lessons and helped him improve his game, especially his grip. Before meeting Rhodes, Elder held the club with a cross-handed grip – his left hand was below his right hand on the club.

“I think one of the reasons I was able to progress as a player was because I had a good teacher that taught me,” said Elder. “[Rhodes] was patient enough to stay with me and to work with me because I think he saw a future in me.”

Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1959, Elder reported to Fort Ord in Monterey, Calif. Serving under a post commander who was a golf fanatic, Elder was able to spend most of his mornings practicing, playing and giving lessons to officers. Elder had played a few professional events before his time in the service, but came out of the Army with his game sharpened and ready for competition.

“I think being able to work on my game as much as I wanted to really started me thinking about a professional career once I left the Army,” said Elder.

Playing against the likes of Pete Brown, Charlie Sifford and his mentor, Rhodes, Elder dominated the UGA Tour, winning 18 of 21 tournaments during one stretch in 1966. He also qualified for the first of his 14 U.S. Opens, making the cut at The Olympic Club. He gained confidence and earned enough money to try to qualify for the PGA Tour the following season.

As a 33-year-old going up against Walker Cup players Bob Murphy, Deane Beman, Marty Fleckman and Tony Jacklin, Elder earned his PGA Tour card on his first crack at qualifying. Although he didn’t win during his first few years on Tour, Elder made a lot of cuts and retained his card by finishing in the top 60 on the money list each season.

Despite his prominence in professional golf, Elder was still subjected to unjust and racist treatment. At some venues he wasn’t allowed to change his shoes in the clubhouse. At a tournament in Memphis, Tenn., in 1970, a spectator ran onto the fairway, picked up Elder’s  golf ball and threw it over the fence, after which other fans contended that Elder had hit his shot out of bounds.

“I was determined that I was not going to let that sort of thing turn me around,” said Elder. “I had worked hard at reaching my goal so I wasn’t going to let something like not going into a clubhouse keep me from reaching that goal.

“If you did, you were defeated from the beginning because that was the purpose of not allowing you to go into the clubhouse. They wanted you to go away. I knew that if I did not stay the course that the kids coming up behind me were going to have a much harder time.”

While he was always determined to play well while he was on Tour, Elder said his main goal was to improve conditions for whoever came behind him so they did not have to endure the same hardships and discrimination that he did.

That was Elder’s message during a recent visit to the USGA campus where he and his wife, Sharon, visited the Museum, toured the Test Center and spoke to the staff about his experiences. He recounted his accomplishments and favorite moments, even revealing a few insights that may have surprised some in the audience. While most people may remember Elder as the first African American to play in the Masters, he called representing the U.S. on the 1979 Ryder Cup team as a 45-year-old the highlight of his career.

Elder also spoke glowingly of a trip to South Africa at Gary Player’s invitation in 1972, during the height of apartheid. He saw significant parallels between the situation in South Africa and the struggle for civil rights in the United States. While there, Elder participated in the South African Open and South African PGA, in addition to playing in 10 exhibitions that raised more than 200,000 rand for a school that the government was trying to shut down.

Now 78, Elder described his childhood as “growing up as a young black kid in the ghetto.” But through golf was able to dine with kings and queens, have political conversations with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and meet several U.S. presidents.

Thirty-seven years after his historic appearance in the Masters, Elder wants to make the game more accessible for future generations so more golfers, especially minorities, can have the same opportunities that he had.

One member of this younger generation is Tiger Woods, whom Elder has known since Woods was 14 years old. After his win in the 1997 Masters, Woods filmed a Nike commercial in which he sent the following message to Elder and Sifford: “Thank you for making this possible.”

That recognition would be something the little boy who was creating his own golf holes in a field would be proud of achieving.

Michael Trostel is the curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Email questions or comments to mtrostel@usga.org.

 

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