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Remembering Bob Jones Award Winner Lee Elder (1934-2021) November 29, 2021 By David Shefter, USGA

2019 USGA Bob Jones Award recipient Lee Elder broke barriers on the course and was an inspiration to many Black golfers off it. (Jason Miczek/USGA)

Lee Elder, a trailblazer in golf and sports who in 2019 became the first African American to receive the USGA’s Bob Jones Award, died on Nov. 28 at the age of 87.

A pioneering force in the game, Elder, who posted four victories on the PGA Tour, overcame personal tragedy and discrimination to become the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament, in 1975. In 1979, he became the first Black player to compete for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup, becoming an inspiration for future generations, including nine-time USGA champion Tiger Woods.

RELATED CONTENT: Renee Powell Remembers Elder's Kind and Gentle Spirit

In fact, Elder drove up from Florida to be in attendance at Augusta National Golf Club in April 1997 when Woods broke through for his first major title, telling him on the putting green on that historic Sunday to “go take care of business.”

"The world of golf has lost one of its most courageous figures in Lee Elder," said USGA CEO Mike Whan. "He was an inspiration to all of us, and his legacy will endure through a commitment to make the game welcoming to all."

Elder’s impact on the game was equally formidable off the course. In 1974 he established the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, which offered financial assistance to low-income men and women for college education. He also served on the board for Goodwill Industries and was a longtime fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund. 

Earlier this month, the USGA and The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., the host site for the 2022 U.S. Open, established the Lee Elder Internship. This one-week experience will expose 25 under-represented youths to all facets of the U.S. Open, from championship operations and media services to course maintenance and marketing.

“I have always worked hard to help underprivileged kids have greater opportunities in life,” Elder said at the time of the announcement. “I am honored to be associated with this important new program, one that will provide several exceptional opportunities for minority representation in the game of golf.”

Born the youngest of 10 children in Dallas, Texas, on July 14, 1934, Elder lost both of his parents by the age of 9; his father, Charles, was killed in action during World War II and his mother, Almeta, died just three months later. Elder was forced to quit school and found work at a nearby golf course, which sparked his early interest in the game. He began practicing with a borrowed club and further developed his skills after he began to caddie. At 12, he was sent to Los Angeles to live with an aunt, where his passion for the game grew through various jobs around the course.

His status grew after he competed in a match against heavyweight champion Joe Louis, an avid golfer, which led to Elder’s association with another legendary African American player, Ted Rhodes. Under Rhodes’ tutelage, Elder polished his game to the point where he was ready to take on the best players in the world.

Following a two-year stint in the U.S. Army (1959-61), Elder started playing professionally in United Golf Association events, a circuit that provided opportunities for Black golfers. In 1965, he dominated the tour, winning 18 of 22 events, and in 1966, he qualified for his first U.S. Open, finishing in a tie for 57th place at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. In 1967, he easily earned his PGA Tour card for the 1968 season. His breakthrough performance wasn’t a victory, but a runner-up finish in which he battled Jack Nicklaus in the American Golf Classic before losing to a Nicklaus birdie on the fifth playoff hole.

Despite facing constant discrimination – including tournaments where he and his fellow Black golfers were forbidden to use the clubhouse – Elder handled the bigotry with grace and dignity.

In an effort to end apartheid policies against Black citizens in South Africa, Elder accepted an invitation from Gary Player to the 1971 South African PGA Championship. He also declined an initial Masters invitation that was based on growing legislative pressure, instead waiting to earn a spot with the first of his four PGA Tour wins, in the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla.

Forty-six years after Elder’s historic first start in the Masters, he returned to Augusta National as an honorary starter, joining Nicklaus and Player on the tee. He was unable to hit a shot due to declining health – including quadruple bypass heart surgery 10 years earlier and the loss of sight in his left eye due to diabetes – but drew the loudest ovation from the gallery.

This came two years after Elder received the USGA’s highest honor, the Bob Jones Award, given annually to an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, a nine-time USGA champion.

Elder qualified for 12 U.S. Opens, with his best finish a tie for 11th in 1979 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. He also qualified for three U.S. Senior Opens, finishing tied for eighth in 1985 at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in Stateline, Nev. He posted eight victories on the PGA Tour Champions, the last in the 1988 Gus Machado Senior Classic, while adding 73 top 10s.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.