Many names in sports are synonymous with breaking the color barrier in sports: most notably Jackie Robinson, tennis stars Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe, Nat Clifton in the NBA, William O'Ree in the NHL, and Jack Johnson in boxing. But a name not many today know and remember is Lee Elder. Most recently, Elder served as an honorary starter at the 2021 Masters tournament alongside two of golf's other greats: Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Elder had many other accomplishments throughout his career, including four wins on the PGA TOUR and had seven top-25 finishes in major championships.
Although Elder may not have been known for the same reasons as other prolific figures in golf, he broke the color barrier for Black athletes allowing them to compete at golf's most notorious stage, the Masters. Only 22 years before Tiger Woods became the first Black man to have a green jacket slipped over his shoulders, Elder set the precedent that would lead to many athletes down the road having a chance to succeed.
Elder qualified for the PGA TOUR during the 1968 season, eventually entering a playoff at the American Golf Classic against one of the greatest golfers of all time, if not the greatest, Jack Nicklaus. But, it took a win at the 1974 Monsanto Open to get Elder a qualification into golf's greatest tournament. But in the middle of the 1970s in Georgia, the thought of a Black man playing golf at Augusta was not taken well.
Elder received intimidating, threatening letters warning him not to tee off in the lead-up to the tournament. He ended up renting two houses in his stay, moving between them in silence so that spectators didn't know where he was staying. His performance at the tournament was not probably what Elder would have wanted or expected, but playing his two rounds of golf set the standard for many more golfers in the future.
After his historic win in 1997 at Augusta, Tiger Woods credited Elder after his win, "I wasn't the pioneer. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder and Teddy Rhodes paved the way... I was thinking about them and what they've done for me as I was coming up the 18th fairway. I said a little prayer and a thanks to those guys. They are the ones who did it for me." Augusta National, the site of the Masters annually, didn't allow a Black member into their club until 1990. They didn't allow women until 2012. Elder was the first person to inspire change in a tradition that has spanned almost 100 years.
On the 45th anniversary of Elder's barrier-breaking appearance at the Masters, he was invited back to be an honorary starter for the tournament. He was the first person to be added to the starting group since the passing of Arnold Palmer in 2016. Instead of using his time in the spotlight to highlight his career, Elder said his thanks for the invitation.During the opening ceremonies, Elder said, "My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday and being able to see some of the great friends that I have made over the past years, especially like [Nicklaus and Player]."
From 1934 to 1961, the Professional Golfers Association had a "Caucasian Clause," which prevented any non-white person from becoming a member. Charlie Sifford, a Black golfer whose prime came before Elder, was never extended an invitation to the Masters - even with two wins, with the Masters tournament changing their requirements to make sure Sifford could not qualify. Elder was the first to make his presence known on the biggest stage and set a precedent for golfers such as Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Harold Varner and more to be able to compete at the highest level - inspiring change in a sport that hadn't changed incredibly since its inception.
Elder died this week at the age of 87, less than a year after his addition to the Masters opening ceremony. His name may not be one of the most prevailing when talking about breaking color barriers in sports, but Lee Elder was able to change one of the longest-standing traditions in sport and inspire many after him to succeed and create their own change.
To see the Masters' official video commemorating Lee Elder, click here.