The unpayable debt golf owes to Lee Elder

Lee Elder

Reader advisory: This piece was written on Thursday, April 5, with the intention of sharing it immediately. We chose to withhold it temporarily on account of the furore caused by Wayne Player so that it would not be overshadowed. However, because of the cultural and wider significance of Lee Elder’s moment, we are sharing it now.


As dawn broke ahead of the opening round of the 85th Masters Tournament, Lee Elder rose from his seat on the first tee at Augusta National, his slow, deliberate movements set to the rhythmic beat of rapturous applause.

Augusta National officials, patrons and his fellow honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, gave the 86-year-old a prolonged ovation.

As his own filled with emotion, the eyes of golf fixed upon Elder, a black man who barreled through racism, discrimination and oppression to become a competitive force in a hitherto unapologetically white man’s game.

Ill health may have prevented him from joining Nicklaus and Player in hitting a shot but it didn’t matter. Club on ball wasn't the impact this moment was intended to have.

This was a moment that transcended The Masters, transcended golf, transcended sport.

This was a moment that spoke to a country still inconceivably divided along racial lines.

This was a moment of badly needed, perfectly timed unity.

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“I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” admitted Elder afterwards.

“It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here the times that I have played here with many of my friends.

“My heart is very soft this morning, 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.”

In 1975, Elder became the first African-American to contest The Masters at Augusta National, a club that has inexorably been defined by colour insofar as it relates to its course, but with a historically monochromatic blind spot as it relates to race

An invitation was only extended to Elder after he won the 1974 Monsanto Open. Until then, if a black man was on club grounds, it was expected that he would be wearing white overalls, the unmistakable uniform of its caddies.

That’s the way club co-founder Clifford Roberts intended it to be. “As long as I'm alive,” he once remarked, “all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.” The notion of allowing a black golfer to play in The Masters was one he resisted for most of his life, insisting that “to make an exception would be practicing discrimination in reverse.”

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Finally, two years before he committed suicide on the banks of the club’s Par-3 Course, Roberts relented.

As the tournament approached, Elder’s mailbox was sullied with so many disturbing letters – including several death threats – that he rented two properties for the week. He moved between them, hoping that nobody would know where he was staying.

As it turned out, he missed the cut but his score was almost incidental. Simply by taking part, Elder had broken one of the last colour barriers in American sport.

Almost half a century later, the country is still wrestling with the very idea of equality. The suggestion that a person’s worth should not be determined by the colour of their skin is, disconcertingly, an argument that continues to rage.

Last week’s acclaim for Elder at a club that once, for shame, discriminated against him won’t solve those problems. But it was symbolic. It mattered.

It speaks volumes for Elder that he chose not to dwell on past wrongs as he held court following the ceremony.

“What I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations,” he recalled. “I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I'll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.”

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Elder’s career was impressive. He won four times on the PGA Tour, made more than a million dollars in prize money, and played on the 1979 US Ryder Cup team.

His influence, though, was so much greater than any of that. To call him a ‘trailblazer’ falls woefully short of the recognition he is due. He did things no other golfer had previously done, despite facing unimaginable hostility and inexcusable cruelty.

He called his invitation to be part of the honorary starter’s ceremony a “great honour” and a “great privilege”. But the honour and privilege are really ours. With his “soft heart” and large footprint, Lee Elder has improved golf in ways that are difficult to quantify with any degree of accuracy.

No apology will ever suffice.

No ovation will ever be too great.

No thanks will ever be enough.

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