Lee Elder: Remember the Good Ol’ Days?
Most of us tacitly understand that racism is alive and well, just that it’s gone somewhat underground, and has grown subtle. Can we remember, though, when it was all right out there, so that we could each make our stand, or some degree of it? Golf had such clarity once. No black players at the Masters, and at least in America, the clubhouses were clear as to whether you could enter or not.
There were clearly those individuals whose talent would not be denied, on both tours. For the PGA, Lee Elder was such an individual. He wasn’t a hot-headed revolutionary butting his head against the brick wall of the status quo. He was one of those stick-to-it guys who played good golf, scraped together the resources to go through channels, and braved a lot of threatening behavior along the way. He just wouldn’t stop. He had support from within his profession. Pro golfers are competitors, and are generally geared towards fairness.
It is an incomplete tribute to celebrate Elder as the first African-American to play in the Masters (1974 – unbelievable, right?). He also won four PGA tournaments – the Monsanto, the Houston Open, the Greater Milwaukee Open and the American Express Westchester Classic. Masters aside, that’s not bad for a fellow who didn’t play a complete 18 hole round until the age of 16.
With race relations being what they were back then, why was Lee Elder hanging around the game of golf anyway, one of the stingiest barriers of the bunch? He even met his wife, Rose, at a golf tournament, and what did she do? She gave up her own golf career to become his manager. How did he end up playing a match with Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis, and getting three years of help from The Brown Bomber’s golf coach, Ted Rhodes? Go figger.
People couldn’t help but notice, though. After playing as a hustler for a while, he went into the army, and was stationed at Ft. Lewis, where the commanding officer opened the way for Elder to play often. Joining the UGA (United Golf Association) for black players, he started winning prizes, usually between $200 and $500. He made those prizes count, though, by winning 18 out of 22 tournaments. And it wasn’t long until he’d gotten enough together for PGA qualification. That went well, too. Elder finished 9th out of 122 competitors, and his ground-breaking presence on the tour began.