Commemorating Lee Elder, Legendary Black Golfer, and Masters Trailblazer
At the peak of his career, Lee Elder spent time mastering his game at Cobbs Creek, one of few golf courses in the country that welcomed his ambitious spirit. After a robust career that stewarded opportunities for many of his successors, Lee Elder passed away on November 28th, 2021, at 87. Elder was the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters tournament. It goes without saying that Elder’s contributions to the Black golf community are integral to Cobb Creek’s continued history.
Elder’s rise to success was anything but easy. During his adolescence, Elder worked as a caddie for a private golf club in Dallas to help support his family. After moving to Los Angeles to live with his aunt, Elder dropped out of school to pursue his passion for golf full time. Occasionally, Elder would caddie for notable golfer Alvin “Titanic” Thompson. The two were known for hustling on the green -often wagering bets against other golfers who had underestimated their superior skillset.
During one of these matches, Elder attracted the attention of Ted Rhodes, one of the first Black professional golfers. Rhodes took Elder under his wing, encouraging Elder to adopt new techniques and enroll in tournaments. After serving in the Army, Elder joined the UGA for Black players in 1961 and became one of the tour’s top competitors shortly after. He won 21 of 23 UGA tournaments within his first years of joining.
Once the PGA of America removed its discriminatory “Caucasians only” restriction in 1961, Elder began training for the master’s tournament. After years of being barred from competitions due to discrimination, Elder would finally be permitted to compete among white golfers. In 1967, he raised enough funds to attend the PGA’s qualifying school, finishing in 9th place among 122 players. His placement earned him a spot on the tour, where he gained notoriety during a sudden-death playoff against Jack Nicklaus.
As one of the very few Black professional golfers, Elder faced racial discrimination throughout his career. He was banned from hotels, frequently received hate mail, had slurs yelled at him from the gallery, and wasn’t permitted to change clothes in some clubhouses. Once during a tournament in Memphis, Elder’s ball was stolen mid-game and thrown into the bushes. Despite it all, Elder managed to persist and rise above, paving the way for young Black golfers to follow in his footsteps.
In 1974, Elder played and won the Monsanto Open, his first win on the PGA Tour. This accomplishment qualified him for the 1975 Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Elder became the first African American to be invited to play at Augusta National. While this triumph was a significant step towards progress within the sport, the extreme bigotry that Elder endured didn’t come to an end.
In the period leading to the tournament, Elder received increasing death threats. Elder rented two houses near the course and moved between them to conceal his whereabouts for added protection. Concerned about what may happen to him during tee-off, Elder had reservations about playing the tournament. Luckily when it came time, he was met with an adoring crowd. It became clear to him that his accomplishment would impact the sport for years to come.
Elder’s philanthropic spirit impacted individuals well beyond the golf course. In 1974, Elder and his first wife developed the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, providing college scholarships for low-income students. Elder was a proponent for youth golf programs, fundraised for the United Negro College Fund, and served as an advisor for Goodwill Industries. He frequently advocated for the rights of Black golfers, protesting racist policies that continued to exist within American country clubs.
Elder returned to Cobbs Creek in 2007 for a Welcome Ceremony featuring other prominent Black golfers, including Pete Brown, Charlie Owens, Calvin Peete, and Walter Morgan. Elder’s courage, grit, and pioneering spirit have and will continue to drive Cobb Creek’s mission to create an inclusive and welcoming space for golfers from diverse backgrounds. May his memory continue to inspire young athletes for years to come.