In 1933 Cliff Roberts, co-founder of the Augusta National club in Georgia, home of the US Masters golf tournament, declared that “all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black” for as long as he could influence the situation. He was as good as his word for the next four decades, but in the end Lee Elder forced open the doors at the 1975 Masters, where he became the first black person to play in the competition.
Elder, who has died aged 87, had been a significant force in US golf in the late 1960s and early 70s, yet had waited in vain for an invite to the Masters, one of the four “majors” of golf. However, his profile reached such heights that Roberts felt he had no choice but to ring up Elder and offer him a place.
Perhaps because of the hullabaloo that surrounded his appearance, Elder’s performance in 1975 was hardly a distinguished one – he missed the cut after two rounds and retreated back to Texas. But it was his presence that was important, for it meant that another racial barrier in US sport had been broken down.
Two decades later, when a young Tiger Woods arrived at the Augusta practice ground on the final day of the 1997 Masters, Elder emerged from the crowd to wish him luck. Woods won the tournament to claim his first major, and afterwards revealed that the brief encounter had proved to be a key moment of inspiration. “That did it all for me,” he said. “Right there, I knew what I had to do today.”
Elder was the youngest of 10 children born in Dallas to Charles, a truck driver, and his wife, Almeta, both of whom had died before he reached the age of 10 – his father in action during the second world war and his mother, it was said, shortly afterwards from shock.
Looked after initially by an older brother, Lee was then taken into the care of an aunt, first in Wichita Falls, Texas, and then in Los Angeles. After a period caddying at golf clubs in California, at 16 he wound up at the Tenison club in Dallas, a municipal course also frequented by another young, poor golfing aspirant, Lee Trevino, who later remembered that the professional there, Erwin Hardwicke, was a welcoming presence to whom “your background didn’t matter”.
Hardwicke allowed Elder to practise on the course at quiet times and by his early 20s he had become good enough to make a living. Backed financially during the early 50s by a local gambler and hustler, “Titanic” Thompson (Alvin Thomas), Elder began entering local tournaments for prize money while also helping Thompson to take cash from gullible participants in more informal matches. In a favourite trick, Thompson would declare that his opponent was not even good enough to beat his caddy – – who just happened to be Elder, at which point the indignant golfer would accept a large bet to the contrary, only to be soundly beaten.
Eventually, in 1961, after two years of national service, Elder joined the all-black United Golfers Association, which ran parallel to the main US PGA Tour. He dominated for the next five years, winning four Negro National Open championships and coming first in almost all of the tournaments he entered during 1966. With the prize money he earned from those victories he was able to save the $6,500 needed to enter the 1967 qualifying school for the US PGA tour – and got through easily, gaining his tour card for 1968 at the age of 34.
Elder was an immediate success, placing 40th on the money list in his first year, winning more than $38,000 and finishing as runner-up to Jack Nicklaus in the American Golf Classic at Firestone in Arizona, which he lost on the fifth hole of a memorable sudden death play-off that thrilled millions of US television viewers. In 1971, having won the Nigerian Open, he became the first black golfer invited to play in the South African PGA championship – at the behest of Gary Player – after agreeing to participate only on condition that the apartheid authorities relaxed their racial segregation of spectators.
After winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensicola, Florida, Elder had to move into the clubhouse to accept the trophy, as the police had received notice of several death threats against him. His victory in that event did not automatically entitle him to play in the 1975 Masters, but it did ratchet up the pressure on Roberts, who immediately phoned Elder to offer an invitation. Elder was otherwise engaged when the call arrived, and when they spoke the next day he told Roberts that he would have to think about it, later revealing that: “I just wanted to give Cliff a taste of his own medicine.” He did eventually accept and when it became known that he would be playing at Augusta the news spread well beyond the golfing world.
The largely white crowd proved to be supportive, cheering him as he went round, and even Roberts claimed to have been “very delighted” at the turn of events. However, taking part in the tournament was stressful for Elder, who had received more death threats before he arrived, had two bodyguards with him at all times, and had to flit between two different rented houses so that any potential assassin could not be sure where he was staying during the tournament.
It was hardly surprising that he failed to do himself justice on the course, but afterwards he played with more success in five further Masters, with a best place of 17th. “I always spoke well of the Masters, and meant it,” he said in 2019. “I believe people are good at heart. If you treat people how you’d like to be treated, they’ll come around eventually. I love going there.”
Elder won three more PGA competitions between 1976 and 1978, and was picked for the USA Ryder Cup team in 1979, another first for a black golfer. In 1984, after winning the Jamaica Open, he moved on to the US seniors tour, on which he won eight tournaments before retirement.
Widely admired for the grace with which he tackled the obstacles put before him, in 2019 he was presented with the United States Golf Association’s highest honour, the Bob Jones award, in recognition of “distinguished sportsmanship in golf”. At this year’s Masters, Elder was one of the tournament’s ceremonial openers, alongside Nicklaus and Player.
Elder married Rose Harper, a public relations executive, in 1966. She acted as his manager until the marriage ended in divorce in the 1990s. He is survived by his second wife, Sharon.