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Posted November 29, 2021, 12:41 pm
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Lee Elder, first Black player at the Masters, dies at age 87

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    Lee Elder at the 1975 Masters (File/The Augusta Chronicle)

Lee Elder, who was the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament, died Sunday, the PGA Tour announced. Elder was 87.

Elder broke the color barrier on golf's biggest stage. 

He learned to play golf crosshanded as a caddie in rural Dallas, before Ted Rhodes, another Black golfer who served as a mentor, changed him to a traditional grip. Elder would go on to dominate the United Golf Association, the tour for Blacks when the PGA's Caucasian-only rule was still in place, before he earned his PGA Tour card in 1967. 

He was the first African-American to play in the South African PGA Championship during apartheid in 1971. He earned his way to the 1975 Masters by beating Peter Osterhuis with an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth hole of a playoff in the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club in Florida. A few years before, he had been refused entrance into the clubhouse of the Pensacola Country Club. 

READ MORE: 'Today Lee Elder will inspire us': First Black Masters participant takes the tee again

PHOTOS: Lee Elder at the Masters

PHOTOS: 2021 Masters honorary starters

Leading up to the 1975 Masters, Elder received death threats, which forced him to rent two houses during Masters Week. He shot 74 and 78 at the tournament, missing the cut, but would play at the Masters an additional five times. 

"I wanted it so badly," Elder once told Golfweek. "When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn't been integrated."

Elder was in attendance when Tiger Woods won his first Masters in 1997, becoming the first Black player to do so. After winning, Woods said it meant a lot to him to have Elder in attendance.

"That meant a lot of me because he was the first; he was the one I looked up to," Woods said. "Because of what he did I was able to play on the PGA Tour. When I turned pro when I was 20, I could live my dream. When Lee came down that really inspired me and reinforced what I had to do."

To celebrate his legacy and contributions to the sport, Augusta National Golf Club named Elder as an honorary starter along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the annual ceremony at the 2021 Masters. Elder was present but did not hit an opening tee shot in April. 

"I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in," Elder said after the ceremonial first tee. "It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National."

Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Charles Coody and Nick Faldo, as well as fellow golfers Corey Conners and Cameron Champ attended the honorary first tee ceremony. NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, were also in attendance.

"It's been a very long time since I've come to this," Faldo said of the honorary starter ceremony. "But I didn't want to miss this one."

READ MORE: Elder broke Augusta National color barrier

PHOTOS: Reception honoring Lee Elder in Augusta 

Champ was the only Black golfer in the field for the 85th Masters Tournament. He told The Augusta Chronicle it was special for him being at his first Masters and to see Elder be one of the honorary starters.

"Just to be the first African American to play on the Augusta grounds, just the stories from my own grandfather, again, it's – I think our society's going in the proper direction. Is there a lot to go? Very much so. But for him, again, what he's done in the communities where he lives, just throughout the entire sport for African Americans and minorities, it's huge," Champ said at the 2021 Masters. "Again, to witness that in person, it means even more."

Augusta National is funding a women's golf program at Paine College and endowing two student-athletes with scholarships in Elder's honor. He was awarded an honorary doctoral degree for his many contributions to golf and the city of Augusta by Paine College in April.

Paine College hopes to start the program by fall 2022.

"It's very important for the program to get started and get going because there's so much that can come from it," Elder said in April. "The only way that you can get something to come from it and to have it be a part of is the fact that you have to work at it."

Former professional golfer and Augusta native Jim Dent said he has high expectations for the program. Dent, a Paine alumnus, said Elder deserved all the recognition he was getting. 

"He deserves every bit of it. He worked hard, the first African-American to qualify to play in the Masters," he said. "He's a great player, always has been a great player, and a great guy. He's a champion and a guy of that stature, it's a great thing to do for him."

April 6, 2021 was also declared as Lee Elder Day in Augusta. 

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