History-making Lee Elder to be Honored at Pebble Beach, 2019
Lee Elder is about to make history…again. He was the first African-American golfer to play in the Masters, and the first to play in the Ryder Cup. He represented a great presence in the pioneering days of non-white golfers in the United States, with Charlie Sifford and Calvin Peete sharing space on the leaderboard. No Lee Elder and his fellow ground-breakers, and there might not have been a Tiger Woods. An iconic shot of Elder graces a now famous front cover of Sports Illustrated, and one looking in from the outside might wonder just how he did it, considering the odds.
Racial issues originate in the first fractures that plagued the inception of the United States, and the transplanted European view of a black man or woman excelling in a ‘white’ sport has proven persistent, an obstacle shared by all non-white groups. In breaking through these barriers by the dispelling of ignorance, opinions of every sort abound – It’s happening too fast, too slow, or at all. Is a rise in racial tension a result of the country backsliding, or bringing ugly realities to the surface where they appear the most aggressive? The debate goes by endlessly, and still the issue continues. Progress has been led by all manner of leaders, from the militant to the religious, but Lee Elder is from another group. It is the group who achieved entrance through grace and graciousness, talent and quiet persistence, winning hearts along the way. When the curtain opened at ‘whites only’ Carnegie Hall to see a statuesque, talented, and dignified Marian Anderson unfurl her rare singing voice, Lee Elder was learning the game of golf, and the same graciousness. Now he’s being rewarded for it with the highest honor the USGA can offer, the Bobby Jones Award. At 84 years of age, he will be honored at the 2019 U.S. Open this June at Pebble Beach.
The prestige of the Bobby Jones Award takes one back to see what was so special about this gentleman, other than his prodigious golf game. Jones grew up in a well-to-do family, where Elder, the last of ten children, did not. Jones did have trouble, though. He has been described as a sickly child who didn’t touch solid food until the age of five. Incidentally, he won his first tournament at six. Elder was orphaned at nine when his military father was killed, and his mother died three months later. Jones’ career was that of the amateur, but he loved winning just as much as they do today. The first part some call the “lean stage,” when he ably demonstrated his skills, but didn’t win much of the big stuff. In the second stage, “the fat years,” he won 13 of the 21 national championship tournaments he entered, propelling the game forwardÂ in several peripheral categories.
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Elder didn’t win quite as prolifically as Jones did, but did win four times on the Tour, then eight times more on the Championships Tour. He describes the state of his emotions at his first Masters as “scared to death.” Ground-breakers and heroes are not exempt from fear. Just teeing off at number one with a crowd watching is enough to send many of us into a paralysis. Elder had to do it in front of the entire professional golf world, and burdened with up to one hundred threats made against his life in that week. There is always a group that drags its heels in the movement to better relations between our citizens, and the institution of Augusta was a line some could not stand to see Elder cross. Among the ‘Carnegie Hall’ moments Elder initiated was the desegregation of the Langston Course in Washington, D.C.
Those who resist progress offered by talents such as Lee Elder fail to realize how detrimental it is to their own health, as it is for the victim. With the welcoming of diverse players at all levels of the game, golf has participated in a successful push-back against the disease. That is what the Bobby Jones Award will signify this June, in addition to a celebration of the “spirit, character, and respect for the game exhibited by Jones.” Humanity is as much a component of golf as statistics, and you couldn’t do better than to recognize it in Lee Elder.