Lee Elder, the first African American to win a major golf tournament — an achievement which opened the gate for him to compete in the Masters in Augusta, Ga. — died Nov. 28 in Escondido, Calif., at the age of 87.
Orphaned when just nine years old, Elder dropped out of high school in Los Angeles and in the 10th grade he supported himself as a golf caddie. He went on to break into the game in the 1960s and ’70s, even though it was still a racially volatile period for golfers of color.
However, in 1975, he won the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, and finally had someone else carry his golf bag. With that, he soon emerged as one of golf’s most recognized faces – a distinction that quickly brought its own set of problems.
At one tournament, he would be forced to change in the parking lot after being denied entrance to the clubhouse; during another, his ball would be hurled into a hedge by a spectator.
In the year leading up to Masters, Elder received threats warning him not to travel to Georgia and in an interview during which he described the experience, he said, “It was frightening. You try to eliminate the possibility of anything happening.”
Elder’s path to the Masters began in 1961, when the PGA of America, the governing body for golf, finally eliminated its “Caucasians-only” rule and he decided to turn pro. But it would be Charlie Sifford who endured racist abuse and death threats who, with the support of the legendary Jackie Robinson, became the first African-American golfer on the PGA Tour in 1959.
In 1967, Elder earned a spot on the tour, finishing ninth out of 122 players at the PGA’s qualifying school. And while he did not win as rookie, in 1968 he battled Jack Nicklaus in a nationally-televised five-hole playoff in the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club in Akron, raising his profile as an emerging star.
Locally, Elder worked at the District’s Langston Golf Course in the 1970s and he’s still remembered by longtime Washingtonians for his golfing skills.
Ray Savoy, Director of Langston Junior Boys and Girls Golf Program Club, told the Washington Informer that Elder had deep roots at Langston.
“He was a very popular gentleman at Langston,” Savoy said. “He would give clinics for the kids and show them different techniques and mannerisms. Lee Elder was a person who gave back to our young people and taught them about character. He showed them what it took not just to be a good golfer but what was needed for them to become good citizens.”
In 1939, the golf course would be dedicated after John Mercer Langston took his grievances to Congress because African Americans could not use other golf courses in the city.
Every professional African-American golf player except for Tiger Woods has played at Langston, said former D.C. Councilmember Harry Thomas.
Earlier this year, Mayor Bowser designated April 10, 2021, as Lee Elder Day in the District of Columbia.
Cosby Washington, an avid golfer, described a recent visit that brought Elder back to Langston.
“Lee Elder came to Langston this summer and he taught a lot of good golfers,” Washington said. “I’m a product of his teaching. A lot of Black golfers got their skills under Lee Elder’s tutelage.”
“I met him before and know that he had a rich history here in D.C.,” said Lisa White, who once represented her community as a commissioner (ANC 7D) and lives just a few blocks from Langston.