So many thoughts rushed through my mind last week when I learned about the death of Lee Elder at age 87.
I first thought of his upbringing. Born in Dallas in summer 1934, he was one of 10 children. His parents died within a few months of each other when he was only 9. Elder never finished high school and turned to caddying as a way to make money as a teen. He also started playing the game and soon became a very accomplished golfer – and a very talented hustler. He toured the American Southwest for a spell with Titanic Thompson and other sharks, making a lot more money in those games against deep-pocketed marks than he ever did as a caddie. His usual play was to pass himself off as a member of the course maintenance crew and then come down off his tractor when Thompson had convinced a couple of members that he could beat them in an 18-hole match, even with “that kid” as his partner. Then, Elder would go out and shoot something in the low 60s.
I also recalled Elder joining the United Golfers Association, the game’s version of the Negro Leagues, in 1961 after a two-year hitch in the Army. He dominated for much of his time there, at one point winning 18 of 22 tournaments.
Then in 1968, he started competing on the PGA Tour. Six years later and after several near-misses, Elder finally broke through to win his first event on that circuit and earn his first invitation to play in the Masters. Four years after that, he became the first Black man to play on the U.S. team in the Ryder Cup.
Elder’s overall playing career came to mind as well. He amassed four PGA Tour wins in a career that had him playing regularly there through 1989, and more than $1 million in prize money. Next up was the Senior PGA Tour, as it was called until 2002, where he accumulated eight victories and $1.6 million more in earnings. It’s a modest record if measured strictly by the numbers. But it’s pretty spectacular when you consider all Elder had to endure through the years in terms of ridicule and racism. I do not know how he even managed to put a golf ball on a tee during some of those times, let alone compete against the best players of his era, what with all the hate mail, death threats and taunting.
But most of all, I reflected on last year’s Masters – when Elder came to Augusta National Golf Club to serve as an honorary starter – and some words Elder uttered during that visit.
It was a busy time for the man, who was attached the entire time to an oxygen tank and moved quite shakily the few times I saw him walk. He was clearly in poor health and fatigued from the trip he and his wife, Sharon, had made to Georgia from their Southern California home.
On Tuesday of tournament week, I watched him accept an honorary doctorate degree from Paine College in Augusta.
“It’s amazing how things come full circle,” Michael Thurmond, the chairman of the board of trustees at Paine, said to me during the ceremony. “I was president of the Student Government Association when Lee played in his first Masters in 1975, and we opened up the campus for him. We fed him and his friends and family. We did our best to make him feel safe because we were concerned about him and his safety. And now we honor him with this degree, because Lee is a good and courageous man.”
Augusta National also honored Elder by endowing two scholarships in his name at Paine, for one player on both the men’s and women’s golf teams. Appreciating that the school had yet to create a women’s golf team, the club also said it would fund the formation of that program there.
That was a big day, and so was the one when Elder helped Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player “start” the 2021 Masters. Arriving on the first tee in a golf cart and then sitting in a chair, Elder was physically unable to make his ceremonial tee shot. But when Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said, “Lee, you have the honors,” Elder stood up from his chair and held his driver in the air, smiling broadly as cheers and applause rose up from the gallery.
During those days, I heard some people criticize Augusta National for waiting far too long to pay proper tribute to Elder for being the first Black man to play in the Masters. A few of them asked what I thought, and my response was that the only person whose opinion I really cared about regarding the matter was his.
As best as I could discern, Elder was fine with how everything was going down. And he expressed that sentiment with words that were full of gratitude, absent of rancor or bitterness and just right for this very righteous moment.
“It was one of the most emotional experiences of my life and something that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Elder said after the honorary starters ceremony, sitting alongside Nicklaus and Player in the press building at Augusta National. “To me, my heart is very soft this morning.”
So are all of ours in golf, as we mourn the passing of a great man and a true giant of the game.
Top: Honorary starter Lee Elder is applauded by Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus at the 2021 Masters.