(Nov. 29) 

Here’s a tip of the visor to Lee Elder , the golfer who died November 28 at age 87. He was not a superstar, but he was a solid pro and a class act.

Elder will forever be known as the first black man to play in the Masters Tournament. But I don’t want to stop there. It would be a shame if, as a result of the racism that dogged this country last century, Elder and others like him were identifiable less by their achievements than by mere reference to their skin color.

Orphaned at age nine and raised in ghettos, Elder had one of those genuine rags-to-riches stories that would be quintessentially American no matter what his race was. He never graduated high school. He worked as a golf caddy but never played a full round until he was 16. Dominant on the segregated tour for black players, he was already 33 by the time he raised enough money to try the PGA Tour qualifying tournament.

He played steady golf and made enough of a mark that South African Gary Player invited him to a professional tourney in Player’s homeland in 1971, shaming South Africa’s Apartheid government into allowing Elder to participate. Still, Elder didn’t win on the main tour until he was nearly 40 — and winning was one of the only ways to qualify for the famous Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.

Even though no black man had played The Masters before, another black player, Charlie Sifford, had won two 1960s PGA Tour events (at ages 45 and 47). The black George Johnson had won one in 1971, but the virulently racist Masters chairman Clifford Roberts did not allow either of them to play his event.

An aging Roberts was finally forced to relent and allow Elder to play in 1975, after Elder won an event the prior season. Elder still faced much of the same racist vitriol and even the same kind of threats that Atlanta Braves slugger Henry Aaron had been dealing with just a year earlier when setting Major League Baseball’s home run record.

Like Aaron, Elder handled it all with dignity – a dignity that, even more than his golf, defined him for all fans of good will…. [The full column is at this link.]


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