Lee Elder, the esteemed pioneer who became the first African American to ever play in America’s most prestigious golf tournament, The Masters, has died. He was 87.
Robert Lee Elder’s death comes just a year after he was honored — long overdue, many believe — by finally being chosen to be an honorary starter in the 2020 Masters alongside fellow legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Fred Ridley of the Augusta National Golf Club and Masters chairman Fred Ridley issued a statement calling Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder,” Ridley said, according to ESPN. “Lee was an inspiration to so many young men and women of color not only through his play, but also through his commitment to education and community. Lee will always be a part of the history of the Masters Tournament. His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to be celebrated.”
Elder made history when he won a PGA golf tournament to earn a place in the 1975 Masters in Augusta, Georgia. He missed the cut, but Elder was on scene 22 years later when a young golf phenom named Tiger Woods won The Masters at age 21 in 1997, the first and only Black man to win that tournament.
The problem is that the PGA had a Whites-only policy until 1961. When Elder finally qualified for The Masters, he was 40 years old and his prime years had already been stolen from him by the sport’s racist ethos.
Elder got into the game as a caddie, and he joined the United Golf Tournament for Black players after he was honorably discharged from the Army in the early 1960s where he had the opportunity to refine his game.
After years of saving up money to attend PGA qualifying school, Elder earned his playing card in 1968. During his rookie year, Elder barely lost to megastar Nicklaus in a sudden-death playoff hole at the American Golf Classic. In total, Elder won four PGA Tour victories and eight more on the PGA Tour Champions for players 50 and over.
In November 2021, Augusta National recognized Elder’s indelible contributions by setting up a scholarship for men and women golfers in his name at Paine College, a historically Black school in Augusta. The club also invited him to take part in the ceremonial tee shot with Nicklaus and Player.
“It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it,” Elder said during the ceremony, according to The Masters.
Nicklaus said, “It was long overdue.”
Flip the page to view the November 2020 event honoring Elder at Augusta.