Golf trailblazer Lee Elder dies at 87

Elder became the first Black man to compete in the PGA's Masters tournament in 1975, helping to pave the way for a generation of pro golfers

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Golf pioneer Lee Elder, the first Black man to compete in the PGA’s Masters tournament, passed away early Sunday morning at the age of 87, the PGA Tour announced.

Elder made history in 1975 when he qualified for the Masters, breaking one of the few remaining color barriers in sports at the time. Until 1961, the PGA had a whites-only rule. But the Masters – golf’s most coveted U.S. tournament – didn’t have a Black man in the competition before Elder.

Lee Elder gestures as he arrives for the ceremonial tee shots before the first round of the Masters on April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Elder, then 40, endured death threats leading up to his historic Masters appearance 46 years ago according to the BBC. He missed the cut at the 1975 Masters after the tournament’s first two days that year.

But he finished in the top 20 in 1978 and went on to compete in 448 PGA Tour tournaments, winning four of them before 1979, according to the PGA Tour’s website. He later claimed an additional eight PGA Tour Champions wins.

The Dallas native, whose parents both died before he was 10, according to CBS Sports, was taken in by his Aunt Sarah at age 11, according to the PGA. He went from serving as a caddie during his teenage years to making pro golfing history two decades later.

Elder paved the way for a generation of Black golfers that emerged in the 60s and 70s, including Al Green, Calvin Peete, and 1987 Ben Hogan Award winner Charlie Owens.

Fellow PGA legend Tiger Woods tipped his hat to Elder following Woods’ historic Masters win in 1997.

“Lee Elder meant a lot to me because he was the first,” Woods said at the time, per Golf Monthly. “He was the one that I looked up to and because of what he did, I was able to play and to live my dream.”

The Genesis Invitational - Final Round
Tiger Woods at the Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club on Feb. 21, 2021 in Pacific Palisades, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

In 2019, the United States Golf Association gave Elder the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship, making him the first Black man to receive the association’s highest honor. In April, he served as an honorary starter at the 2021 Masters in Augusta, joining fellow PGA greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the green.

“Lee endured so much, and that made his appearance at the Masters ceremonial tee shot, with Jack and I, so special,” Player said of Elder, according to the PGA. “He was honored for his remarkable contributions to golf. He will be greatly missed in the golf world. Rest in peace, my friend.”

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