A Detroit News photographer was shadowing him on the golf course, the Los Angeles Times' Jim Murray was around somewhere and Lee Elder was trying to accommodate everybody. Walking the 10th fairway, Elder found himself matching strides with a sporting-goods executive who was urging him to endorse a new driver. When Elder slipped away for a moment, the fellow whispered, "You can get a lot of mileage out of Lee right now. A lot of mileage."
As the afternoon wore on, the distractions began taking their toll. Lee Elder was playing in a pro-am tournament at Los Angeles' Bel-Air Country Club, hardly a blue-chip event. But no self-respecting pro could be happy about the four-foot putt Elder blew on one hole or the three-footer that refused to fall a moment later. Other calamities followed and after struggling to a four-over-par 74, a dispirited Elder told his amateur partners, "I'm sorry I let you guys down." Trudging up a hill leading to the clubhouse, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Elder added, "I'll be plenty glad when all this stuff is over."
For Elder it will all be over next month. On Thursday, April 10 he finally will tee off at the Augusta National Golf Club, becoming the first black golfer ever to play in the Masters. With black athletes long since prominent in other sports, the moment may have an almost quaint, old-newsreel quality. Still, golf is basically a white man's game and Augusta is a relic of the Old South that until now found a place for blacks only as waiters and caddies. And when Robert Lee Elder, high school dropout, ex-hustler and product of the ghettos of Dallas and Los Angeles, drives down Magnolia Lane to play in the Masters, it surely will be an emotional scene.
Having already gone through many mini-scenes—more than 10 months' worth, in fact—Elder himself could scarcely be unimpressed by the occasion. After winning the Monsanto Open at Pensacola last April 21, the victory that earned him his long-sought Masters invitation, he was given the key to the city in Washington, D.C., where he has made his home for 13 years, and hardly a week went by that he was not acknowledging standing ovations at places like the National Press Club. Gerald Ford played golf with him, a distinction he shares with Jack Nicklaus, and the President was one of 1,200 well-wishers who turned out last December for a $50-a-plate testimonial to Elder at the Washington Hilton, the proceeds going to a new Lee Elder scholarship fund.
March 9, 1975
At 40, just the age for taking stock, Elder is gracious enough to overlook the fact that Arnold Palmer fetched $250 a plate at his testimonial last month in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding Elder's desire to have the Masters over and done with, he says feelingly, "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, no doubt about it. I'm excited about going to Augusta. It's a chance to spread good relations between people and it's a chance for me to make some money."
But Elder is under strain. Nicknamed "Flip" by his fellow pros because he is often mistaken for comedian Flip Wilson, he is ordinarily an easygoing fellow who shrugs off talk of pressure on the PGA tour by invoking his decade on the predominantly black United Golfers' Association circuit. With a chuckle, he says, "When you check into a motel and need to win the tournament to pay the bill, man, that's pressure." In the months since winning the Monsanto, though, it has dawned on Elder that adulation can bring almost as many problems as adversity.
Some of the problems are physical. A casualty of the banquet circuit, the 5'8" Elder is 10 pounds overweight at 185, and this has not helped a chronic sore back. There are also signs of edginess. During the Bel-Air pro-am, Elder at one point accidentally snapped his putter in two. "Now don't anybody think that I lost my temper," he cautioned onlookers. "I thought the shaft was crooked and I was only trying to straighten it. I didn't do it on purpose." He smiled tightly, adding, "I would've liked to, but I didn't."
The pressures that Elder felt at Bel-Air have also plagued him in PGA competition. After joining the tour in 1968, a battle-hardened rookie of 33, Elder quickly established himself as the best of the handful of black pros on the circuit. He finished 30th on the money list the last two years, swelling his career winnings to $365,320. But until last week's Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, he had missed the cut in four straight tournaments—and there he was 69th. His best finish this year has been a tie for 36th in the Tucson Open and his winnings for 1975 are a mere $1,345.
Thrust suddenly onto center stage, Elder has been playing some of the worst golf of his career—and the one development is largely responsible for the other. Two weeks ago, just before missing the cut in the Los Angeles Open, Elder sat in the kitchen of the house where he was staying and said, "I had a little letdown after winning the Monsanto, and I guess that was natural. I also got away from golf a little and I've had trouble relaxing because the phone doesn't stop ringing. I appreciate the columnists and the other people calling, but it's not helping my golf game any."
Later that morning Elder was about to leave for the golf course when he discovered that an old friend who was to accompany him, a physician, had gone to the store to buy film. When the doctor returned, Elder demanded, "How would you like it if I went for film when you had an operation to perform?" Arriving at the Riviera Country Club, he found traffic backed up. Other golfers were caught in the congestion, too, but Elder seemed to take it personally.
"I'm just not going to sit here like this," he announced. Ordering the doctor to take the wheel, he bounded out of the car. Hurrying toward the clubhouse on foot, he said, "The way I'm playing I need all the practice I can get."
Ordinarily, the task of screening Elder from distractions would fall to his wife. Rose Elder is a trim, lively onetime amateur golf champion who gave up her career as an executive secretary to become her husband's business manager. The couple is childless, and Rose Elder usually travels on the tour with Lee, an arrangement that has worked out well. "I go to the racetrack," Elder likes to say, referring to one of his principal pleasures, "and Rose runs the business. I've got a good deal."
But Masters-related business was piling up at the Elders' three-story brick house in Washington, forcing Rose to miss the L.A. Open. Lee was phoning her three times a day from Los Angeles, and one call alone lasted 90 minutes. Elder is scrupulous about starting times on the golf course but otherwise, says Jim Wiechers, a fellow pro and close friend, "When you make plans with Lee, you're never sure if he'll make it or not unless you check with Rose." One day Elder accepted an invitation to dine with an old friend in San Diego, but failed to show up—or to send regrets—and he was forgetting other appointments almost as fast as he made them.
"If Rose were here, she'd take care of things like this," he said with a helpless air. "I accept all these invitations because I don't like to say ho to people. The spotlight's on me now and I don't want people to think I've gotten bigheaded."
Bright as the spotlight may be, any temptation to compare Elder's appearance at the Masters with, say, Jackie Robinson's pressure-packed debut in baseball is a risky one. The PGA had a whites-only clause as late as 1961, but today there is virtually no discrimination on the tour. The problems for blacks in golf occur at lower levels. Country clubs and college golf programs, the chief sources of talent, remain largely lily white, raising another important distinction from the Jackie Robinson precedent: Lee Elder's appearance at the Masters portends no great new influx of black golfers.
Instead, the occasional black who makes it today may have to do as Elder did—caddy and sneak shots at night with castoff clubs. Orphaned at 11—his father was killed in Germany in World War II and his mother died soon after—Elder never played a full 18-hole round until he was 16. He nevertheless became proficient enough to support himself by hustling, agreeing to play cross-handed, for example, while neglecting to tell the pigeon that for years this was the way he gripped a club. Joining the black tour, he became a terror, in one stretch winning 21 of 23 events. But purses were seldom more than $500 and, approached for loans, he often, in effect, redistributed his winnings among other players.
"He was a soft touch," recalls Rose Elder. "He gave away his money, and he'd still be doing it if I weren't here. At a party in Chicago, Lee once put up $100 to run the bar, but I took back $50 of it. The bartender was furious, but I thought 50 was enough." Significantly, it was only after his marriage in 1967 that Elder saved enough to make the leap to the PGA. As a rookie the following year he finished in the money in his first nine outings—still a record for newcomers—and gained prominence in the nationally televised American Golf Classic by taking Jack Nicklaus to a five-hole playoff before losing.
Few touring blacks travel with their wives, and from the beginning the Elders have socialized with white couples like the Bob Murphys and the Jim Wiecherses. Still, Elder and other black players have suffered slurs from the galleries ("You should be carrying the bag, nigger") and occasional snubs from white pros. Recently one of the tour's stars asked Elder to help a large Southern university recruit its first black golfer. Afterward Elder said angrily, "Here's a guy who speaks two words to me all year and all at once my being black comes in handy. Stuff like that happens all the time."
Elder denies that he is "politically inclined," yet he is not exactly disinclined, either. In 1971, invited by Gary Player to compete in South Africa, he insisted that the clubhouse, galleries and competition be fully integrated, and his conditions were met. The trip, during which he also managed to win the Nigerian Open, came well before similar junkets by Arthur Ashe and Bob Foster. Elder says with quiet pride, "We were pioneers in South Africa and I feel I left something there for my brothers."
In the case of the Masters, what Elder confronted was something other than pure apartheid. In recent years, anyway, the Masters brass has never wavered in its solemn, if strict-constructionist, assurances that any black who qualified under its rules would be allowed to play. On the other hand, the Masters committee routinely invites foreigners and amateurs at its own discretion and could have integrated the tournament anytime it pleased by simply inviting, say, a black Kenyan or black amateur. At any rate, the rules it kept insisting on were forever changing: two other blacks, Charlie Sifford and Pete Brown, have won PGA events, but both victories preceded a 1972 rule change that put tour winners automatically into the Masters.
Had Elder found it convenient to go right out and win an event in 1972, he might have headed for the Masters with comparatively little fanfare. Instead, some near-misses—notably a wrenching playoff loss to Lee Trevino in the 1972 Greater Hartford Open—stirred things up. The following year a group of 18 Congressmen, alleging "subtle discrimination," urged that Elder be given a special Masters invitation. Elder himself equivocated, maintaining in one breath that he wanted to get to the Masters "on my own merits," in the next appearing to agree with the Congressmen. His situation, for sure, was frustrating. By last year's Masters, Lee Elder had earned more money than any non-tournament winner in golf history.
All of which made it uplifting in the extreme when, playing in the Monsanto in Florida a week after the 1974 Masters, Elder sank an 18-foot birdie putt to defeat Britain's Peter Oosterhuis in the fourth hole of sudden death. The Nicklauses, Millers and other big names had passed up the event, but it was a win for Elder just the same, and a $30,045 one. On the phone to Rose, who had remained in Washington, Lee pressed a towel to his face to hide his tears and said, "Baby, we did it—we finally won." Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts pronounced himself "delighted" to invite Elder, and the sigh of relief in golfdom was almost audible.
Looking back on the whole affair, Elder says with some bitterness, "The Masters has never wanted a black player and they kept changing the rules to make it harder for blacks. Everything's fine now only because I got them off the hook by winning." But he long ago ruled out boycotting the event by way of protest. "Some people told me, 'Man, how can you play in the Masters after all this? Why don't you refuse?' But I feel I can do more good being there. As hard as I've tried to get there, how can I run away now?"
If Elder's struggles before Monsanto created a certain drama, his wait since has raised it to a higher pitch. In the next month he figures to be TV-documentaried and newspaper-supplemented to the point where Flip Wilson may occasionally be mistaken for him. He is working on his inevitable autobiography. "We're thinking of calling it something like 'Lee Elder: Story of a Pioneer,' " he said the other day. "But I don't know if I like that or not." Elder's worries were many. "These companies keep offering one-year contracts for endorsements," he fretted at another moment. "What's wrong with three or four years?"
Last October Elder played Augusta at the invitation of Coca-Cola President J. Paul Austin. He shot a 74 and came away saying, "The course is everything they say it is—picturesque and beautiful—and the service couldn't be better." He plans to practice at Augusta twice more before Masters week. It is possible, if only remotely, that another black golfer might win one of the next five tour events and thus qualify, too. The likeliest man, Jim Dent, has been playing well. Since Dent used to caddy at Augusta, his return as a player would be almost too good for Hollywood, but Elder would actually welcome being upstaged.
"I'd love to see Jim at the Masters," he says. "He's from Augusta and it would mean a lot to him. I could still say I was the first to qualify. And by having Jim or some other black golfer there, I think it would make me a little less nervous."
Elder has rented two large houses and four motel rooms in Augusta to accommodate an entourage of friends, relatives, business associates and press agents numbering, at last count, 55. With a wry grin, he says, "My presence will be felt." To make his presence felt in other ways, he vows to start getting his golf game together in the remaining weeks before the tournament. "I'm driving better than ever, and I've got new irons that seem to work," he says. "It's just a matter of concentration. I'd like to do well in the next couple tournaments and if the putts start dropping, I think I can play well at the Masters, too. Maybe even win."
This last heady possibility was raised often enough at last December's testimonial in Washington, where one speaker after another kept turning to Lee Elder and saying things like, "Now wouldn't it be great if you could go win at Augusta, Lee?" And, well, wouldn't it? Yet it remained for Wiechers, a quiet, hulking nine-year PGA veteran who has never qualified for the Masters, to restore perspective. When his turn came to speak, he said, "All this talk about winning the Masters is just putting more pressure on Lee. All that really matters is that he's going to be there."