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Lee Elder, golf legend and first Black Masters competitor, dies at 87

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 9:54 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 29, 2021 at 3:51 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Lee Elder, golf legend and the first Black man to play in the Masters Tournament, has died.

The death was tweeted Monday morning by the PGA Tour.

Elder was the first African American to compete in the 1971 South African PGA during the Apartheid era upon receiving an invitation from Gary Player. He was also the first African American to play in the Ryder Cup in 1979.

Winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla., earned Elder an invitation to compete in the 1975 Masters Tournament.

Elder, who grew up in Dallas and got into the game as a caddie, not a player, since that essentially was the only avenue Black people had into the game at that time, blazed the trail.

Lee Elder was an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters Tournament. (Augusta National Golf Club...
Lee Elder was an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters Tournament. (Augusta National Golf Club photo)(ANGC)

After he first competed in the Masters Tournament, doors slowly kept opening within the game, and Augusta National made Ron Townsend its first Black member in 1990, seven years before a kid named Tiger Woods won the first of his five Masters titles.

He was back at Augusta National for Woods’ first win in 1997. The first Black man to play the Masters was simply not going to miss seeing the first Black man winning the tournament.

Elder took part in the ceremonial start at the 2021 Master Tournament back in April of this year, joining six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus and three-time champion Gary Player. His health at the time wouldn’t allow him to take a swing. Instead, he raised his driver on a cool morning that was warmed by enormous applause from spectators who lined both sides of the tee box.

He became the 10th past player to be part of the honorary starter ceremony, and fittingly, the first Black man to join that list.

Paine College in December conferred an honorary doctorate on Elder during a virtual commencement convocation.

Along with presenting him with an honorary doctorate degree for lifetime achievement, with the help of Augusta National, Paine College launched two scholarships in his name and started a women’s golf team.

Elder was also presented the mayor’s Legacy Award by Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., who officially declared April 6 as Lee Elder Day in the city of Augusta.

Reaction from the golf world and beyond

Lee Elder was a pioneer, and in so many ways. Yes, he was the first black person to play in the Masters Tournament, but that simply underlined the hard work Lee put in to further the cause of everyone who has a dream to play on the PGA TOUR and perhaps thinks there were too many barriers before them. It was wonderful that the Masters Tournament and Augusta National paid a well-deserved tribute to Lee by inviting him to be an Honorary Starter on this last Masters. That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face, and Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him. That memory will remain special for so many, including me, for many years to come.

Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people. The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder. Barbara and I send our heartfelt condolences to Lee’s wife Sharon and their entire family.

— Professional golfer Jack Nicklaus

Overnight, I was very saddened to hear of the death of my good friend Lee Elder.

Lee had called me last week about doing a project together this summer.

We actually joined our perspective Tours together after both winning the United Golfers Association (UGA) National in the same year. For those who don’t know, the UGA was an amateur body of African-American golfers that included divisions for women, men, junior boys and girls, and a professional division. They operated a series of tournaments during the era of racial segregation in the U.S.

As the years went by, Lee and I were partners in the JC Penney Team Championship at Doral.

This year, I was proudly standing next to the first tee at Augusta National when Lee was given Honorary Starter status alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to open the Masters.

Thank goodness, Lee was finally recognized there!

Please keep his wife, Sharon, in your prayers.

— Professional golfer Renee Powell

In April of 2015, I had the honor of recognizing Mr. Lee Elder with a key to the City of Augusta as a prominent and extraordinary individual in American sports history due to his accomplishment of breaking the racial barrier and in 1975 becoming the first African American to play in the Masters Golf Tournament. Today, I am saddened by the passing of Mr. Elder at the age of 87.

Every year since 2015, I have looked forward to seeing Mr. Elder in April during the tournament. The 2021 85th edition of the Masters Tournament was especially poignant because Lee would be an honorary starter, once again breaking barriers and continuing to blaze a trail.

Mr. Elder will be missed as he set the bar and reminded us that “We all belong,” according to a statement made by Tiger Woods in response to Augusta National celebrating Lee Elder in 2021.

On behalf of the entire City of Augusta, our profound condolences are extended to the Elder family. We pray for solace in God’s sovereignty and comfort filled with peace during this time.

— Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr.

Before there was Tiger Woods, there was Lee Elder.

Lee Elder was the first African American to play the Masters Tournament and was arguably one of the best players of his time.

Today, we remember Dr. Lee Elder for his contributions to the game of golf and for his service to humankind

Dr. Elder, may you rest in peace.

— Augusta Commissioner Jordan Johnson

Today we are saddened by the loss of our teammate and friend, Mr. Lee Elder. A true trailblazer and gentleman, we honor Lee’s memory and the lasting impact he made on the game.

— Ryder Cup USA

We are saddened to learn of the passing of Lee Elder. Lee was the definition of a trailblazer, and his impact on the game of golf will never be forgotten.

— LPGA

We lost a legend. My friend Lee Elder was an incredible man. He is gonna be so missed. All my love to his Wife and family. God Bless u Lee

— Music star Darius Rucker

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