Two phone calls, 46 years apart. Both from the president of the Augusta National Golf Club, both from the same man.
The first call came in April 1974. US golf had an abominable racial history, riddled with absolute segregation and de facto segregation, with ever-changing grading rules to keep the sport as white as possible. No black man had ever played the Masters before. But Lee Elder had just won the PGA Tour event in Pensacola, Florida, obtaining automatic qualification for the Masters.
Clifford Roberts of Augusta National, the man who turned the Masters into an institution, named Elder. Roberts was either a virulent racist or a man of his time, depending on what was being told, but he was also extremely media savvy, and he knew that the club needed to at least appear to be hugging Elder. He officially invited Elder to the Masters and expressed his personal satisfaction that Elder had earned an invitation.
“I think he wanted me to say ‘yes’ right then and there,” Elder said. Illustrated Sports In the past week. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to think about it, Mr. Roberts. I’ll make it know.’ “
Elder was cautious, not only about how white America would treat a black golfer at the Masters, but also about how they used them. Earlier, when a group of politicians lobbied for a special invitation from the Masters, he resisted. I wanted to earn it. Now he had it. But it still made Roberts wait for an answer. Elder wanted to speak to the confidants before agreeing, but also: he had waited long enough. I wanted Roberts to wait. He finally said yes and broke the Masters color barrier the following year.
The second phone call came last fall.
At his home in Southern California, Lee Elder keeps a copy of YES with Lee Elder on the cover. The magazine is not just a memory for him, because his professional life was not just a golf career. He doesn’t own a Claret Jug or Wanamaker Trophy or a World Golf Hall of Fame spot, but what he accomplished was probably more difficult.
“You can’t capture with a trophy,” he says. “It is captured, I feel, within the person himself and what he thinks about what happened.”
Elder’s story is about being first, but also about being too late. It’s about what he accomplished, but also what he could have accomplished if the United States did not overwhelm him. Elder’s story is an important story for anyone who loves golf, but the rest of us can’t pick up the story like a ball on the green, remove all the dirt, and put it back where it was. It is not our place to do that.
This is Elder’s story to tell, however he chooses to tell it.
Elder turns 87 this summer, but his memory remains sharp. He can tell you where he was staying – “the Albert Pick, which is directly down (Interstate) 40” – during the 1968 Greater Greensboro Open, the week Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Remember the unrest in the country and remember that Greater Greensboro was delayed and ended on Monday. He remembers going to Memphis the following year for the old Danny Thomas Memphis Classic: “At the time it was called the Memphis Open, and after that it became the Danny Thomas,” he correctly says. He was leading the tournament on Saturday when he hit what appeared to be a great tee shot. He couldn’t find his ball.
“In the middle of the street, center left, and it was near a road and a fence,” Elder says. “And we finally found out that a guy jumped over the fence, picked up the ball and went with it. No one in the gallery said anything. … They caught the ball and threw it on the road when I was leading the golf tournament. “
He finished second that week, and he says it was a pretty good performance, with the death threats and all that.
Elder can tell you who should have played the Masters before him. Remember that black golfer Pete Brown won the Waco Turner Open in 1964, and black golfer Charlie Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the 1969 Los Angeles Open, and says they should have both received Masters invites both years, but they never did. Half a century later, the only fact in this paragraph that Elder did not recite correctly from memory was the year of Brown’s victory. I was out for a year.
He remembers being in Pensacola in 1974 and having to beat more than the field.
“They had threatened me,” he says of some locals. “If I won the tournament, I would never leave there.”
It was an extraordinary surprise that he got there. Elder’s father died in Germany in World War II. Then his mother died. He was orphaned at 11. He played his first full round of golf when he was 16. He decided he wanted to be a golfer, but a black golfer back then was always a black golfer, never just a golfer. In 1960, Elder met Ted Rhodes, who had worked with Sifford and had seen how atmospheric pressure affected other black golfers.
“I didn’t want that to happen to me,” Elder says. “So he decided that he would travel with me, he was practically taking me under his wing. And we travel the world, driving most of the time. “
Rhodes gave Elder a lot of advice, some to apply in the course, some to apply, and this, to apply everywhere: “The one thing I always remember Teddy saying, ‘You know, it’s so hard to get out of a situation. It’s so easy to forget. ‘ In other words: Don’t worry about what is going wrong. Double ghost? Forget this. Failed cut? Forget this. Racial slurs from a stranger calling your hotel room? Forget this.
No athlete should have to deal with intolerance, of course, but it is especially difficult for a golfer to overcome. Virtually all tournaments are road games and most are held on private and exclusive property. Golf is also a nervous game. There is no conventional rhythm, there is no possibility of running up and down the court or relying on athletics for a few minutes. Except for occasional events, there are also no teammates to rescue you.
Simply by the color of his skin, Elder was a perpetual outsider in the ultimate inner sport. That 1975 YES cover story detailed some of the slights and challenges:
Recently, one of the stars on the tour asked Elder to help a large southern university recruit its first black golfer. Then the elder said angrily, “Here’s a guy who speaks two words to me all year long, and suddenly being black is good for me. Things like that happen all the time. “
Elder won four PGA Tour events. He would win eight on the Senior Tour (now called the Champions Tour). The difference can be explained by his putting, which improved, or the fact that he returned to the game later than most of his teammates, delaying his best time on the PGA Tour. But there’s also the simple fact that you made it to the PGA Tour in the 60s and the Senior Tour in the 80s, and it was easier to be a black golfer in the 80s.
“That was one of the reasons,” Elder says. “It had gotten a lot quieter.”
The turbulent American summer of 2020 gave many people time to think, including Augusta National’s Fred Ridley.
“The president called me himself, around 10 in the morning,” Elder says. “He said, ‘I want to know if you have time and we can talk about something.’ “
Elder had a pretty good idea why Ridley was calling. Elder’s friend, three-time Masters champion Gary Player, had publicly asked Augusta National to name Elder as an honorary starter, along with Player and Jack Nicklaus, to acknowledge his place in club history. Player grew up white in South Africa, well aware of his privilege long before people said things like that. Player wasn’t just nice to Elder; she drew him to her. When Player asked Elder to join him for the South African PGA event, Elder was because he trusted Player’s heart: “He knew he was going to help and he wouldn’t hurt anything.” Today, Player refers to Elder as “my brother”.
Elder had many years to think about his career, the threats he received and the discomfort they made him feel, and this is how he chooses to tell his story now:
“There really weren’t any bad people I came into contact with during my entire touring career. Because I immediately came out with the attitude that I was going to make friends and hopefully that they would want to make friends. “
And: “I would not say that the country did not welcome me, because I feel that the things that I have achieved, as in the Ryder Cup team in the United States, I tell them: That was one of the greatest experiences I have had. has ever had. “
And: “I’ve never, never had a bad time at Augusta National. Even my first year, when I came down in 1975, [with] All the threats and all the things they had sent me, I still felt comfortable when I walked through those doors at Augusta National, because I knew I was going to be well protected. “
You thought about it, Mr. Roberts. He thought about it for a long time. And when Fred Ridley called, Lee Elder didn’t have to think about it anymore.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, I have time for you at any time, sir. “
The old man will be on the first tee on Thursday.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.