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Remembering the Kind and Gentle Spirit of Lee Elder December 14, 2021 By Renee Powell

Lee Elder, who died in late November at the age of 87, was emotional during his Bob Jones Award acceptance speech in 2019. (USGA/Jason Miczek)

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It was a shock when I began receiving messages on the Sunday after Thanksgiving asking if I had heard the news about Lee Elder.

It had not been more than 10 days since I received a phone call from Lee and heard his excitement about a project he felt we could do together during the 2022 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. I was looking forward to more discussions with him after the holiday, but those never happened.

I have spent the last few days reflecting on memories of Lee and have so many fond recollections of my friend.

When I was a teenager in the early 1960s, my parents allowed me to travel from our home in Ohio to Miami with friends for a couple of weeks. It gave me the opportunity to play in the North-South Golf Tournament at Miami Springs Golf Course and the rare chance to work on my game during the winter.

I had briefly met Lee Elder before, but had never played golf with him. It was at that tournament that he asked me to play a practice round with him and I gladly accepted. Being a young Black female golfer, I was fortunate that many of the older players recognized my talent and really looked out for me as if they were my aunts and uncles. I won the women’s division of the tournament and Lee won the professional division. I have a lovely photograph someone took of the two of us together that has become more meaningful over time.

Our paths continued to cross in the following years. When the 1966 United Golfers Association (UGA) National Tournament was played at Coffin Golf Course in Indianapolis, once again I won the women’s division and Lee won the pro division. In 1967, the year I joined the LPGA Tour and Lee joined the PGA Tour, he invited me to be his partner in the Haig & Haig Scotch Foursome (which became the JCPenney Classic), a mixed-team event featuring men and women. Over the next decade, Lee hosted a tournament at the Nemacolin Resort in Farmington, Pa., that I played in several times. 

Renee Powell (right) befriended Lee Elder during their playing days and the two remained close until his receent passing. 

Over the years he would always say we needed to do some clinics together or collaborate on a program for young people. He was always thinking of ways we could work together because we both loved golf so much and wanted to share our talents to help grow the game.

For several years, Lee had hoped to receive an invitation to be an honorary starter at the Masters. He knew it would send so many positive signals about how golf was changing for the better. I talked to him many times leading up to the day his dream became a reality.

Throughout the spring of 2021, Lee was so excited to share his Augusta itinerary with me and noted how the red carpet was being laid out for him. He talked about meeting Chairman Fred Ridley and was looking forward to thanking him for what Lee truly considered an honor. He was humbled by it all.

On that opening day of the 2021 Masters, I was so happy to have the good fortune to be seated at the first tee as my friend was introduced as an honorary starter. As I glanced back at the clubhouse, I believe every single person of color who worked there was standing on the balcony with a great sense of pride as they witnessed history. A Black man standing on the first tee as an honorary starter was something neither they, nor I, ever thought we would see in our lifetimes. But it was real – and Lee Elder had a smile that went from ear to ear. Once again, he was making a positive difference in the game of golf.

Through all the adversity and major obstacles Lee endured to play, he was never bitter. He was always determined to do the best he could and to be a beacon of light for others to follow. He loved to share his life experiences with children. When anyone asked a question, he answered thoughtfully because he knew he was making a positive impact in their lives.

Sometimes in our lives we are fortunate to have certain people cross our paths. I feel that way about Lee Elder. He was a great golfer and ambassador of the game, but he was an even better human being.

Renee Powell is the head professional at Clearview Golf Club in East Canton, Ohio. She was the second black player on the LPGA Tour and has received countless awards and accolades during her six decades in the game.