The Courage of Lee Elder

Overcoming segregation and bigotry, he opened the fairways for black golfers at Augusta. But 33 years later, even with the rise of Tiger Woods, racial tension can still rattle the game
April 06, 2008

THROUGH THE MIST he appeared in a doorway of the Augusta National clubhouse, his forehead creased, his eyes heavy from haunted sleep. Out stepped Lee Elder, dressed in shades of green, carrying his thoughts into the moist Georgia morning. For months the hate mail had said he would never make it to this day in April 1975. Watch your step when you get to Augusta, other letter writers warned him. There will be blood. ¶ To be safe, he had rented two houses in town and kept moving between them, the former golf-course hustler playing the odds. He made sure he had people around him when he ate his meals. He was as inconspicuous as a man whose face was all over the evening news could be.

Elder made his way to the 1st tee, where no black man had ever gone during Masters week without carrying a 50-pound bag and wearing a white coverall. Elder was there with a golf ball and a few tees. In front of thousands of eyes he reached down, stuck a peg in the soft soil and placed his ball on top of it. He took a deep breath. He told himself to relax. And then he prayed silently in front of his hushed audience: O Lord, please don't let me embarrass myself.

Thirty-three years later there is great anticipation focused on another black man teeing it up at Augusta, but it's less about race and sociology and more about winning the Grand Slam. Winner of seven of his last eight events worldwide, Tiger Woods arrives next week as the overwhelming favorite to win his fifth Masters and continue a run at immortality (special foldout, page 57).

But even as Woods thrives as the No. 1 golfer and most popular athlete in the world, an entire sport riding his red shirttails, old racial tensions occasionally reverberate through the game. In the unique case of Augusta National, with its Old South heritage seemingly frozen in time—a patrician and male white membership, aging blacks on the service staff and plantation-style buildings—a sense of the segregated past still lingers beneath the din of back-nine Sunday roars.

When Elder's left-to-right tee shot touched down on Augusta National's 1st fairway, it broke one of the last racial barriers in sports. Yet it did not free him from his memories of black children blown up in church, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., cities set on fire. America was still grappling with integration, and Elder was in the middle of it.

Man, the stories he could tell. There was the time in Pensacola, Fla., when Elder and the PGA Tour's other black players were forced to change their clothes in the parking lot because club members wouldn't allow them in the clubhouse. Or the time in Memphis when the harassment of Elder escalated from his ball mysteriously disappearing on the course to a late-night phone call that awakened Elder in his hotel room. "N-----," the voice said, "you better not win this golf tournament." Elder played the rest of the tournament with a police escort.

It was then that Elder accepted the fact that he might not grow old. Any one of those threats could be real. Any one of the crackpots flooding him with hate mail might come after him with a gun. Would it be someone following him in the gallery, or standing near the putting green, or sitting in the clubhouse parking lot?

"It's hard to explain what it was like for Lee," says Gary Player, who as apartheid reigned in 1971, boldly invited Elder to play in the South African PGA Championship. Lee accepted. "How do you explain," asks Player, "what it was like being a Jew during the war?"

How do you explain that in 2008, before the season was even a month old, the golf world was tripping all over itself on the issue of race?

THE TWO winning streaks overlapped for a time, though reported in separate sections of the newspaper. The biracial candidate for president was stumping in New Orleans and Richmond and Madison, scooping up delegates, winning 11 contests in a row in February. That was the number of consecutive tournament victories the multiracial golfer was chasing—Byron Nelson's record, one of the most hallowed in the game. Woods had won in Chicago and Atlanta to end the 2007 season. He bested the fields in San Diego, Tucson and Orlando in the first 11 weeks of '08.

At a point when the momentum and the buzz were building for each man, an insensitive remark interrupted the discussion like a tray of dishes crashing to the floor. For Barack Obama it was the unearthing of incendiary sermons earlier this decade by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, regarding U.S. policy. For Woods it was an offhand remark by Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman during the Mercedes-Benz Championship, a January tournament in which he wasn't even playing. During the telecast analyst Nick Faldo remarked that fellow pros would have to gang up on Woods to stop his victory march, after which Tilghman suggested they "lynch him in a back alley." Tilghman was suspended for two weeks. After Golfweek used an image of a noose on the cover to peg a story inside about the controversy, editor Dave Seanor lost his job.

"[Tilghman's] statement was very harsh; I thought it warranted a longer suspension," says Elder. "The noose on the cover went a little far."

Though he didn't start it, Woods ended up in the middle of the firestorm after his agent released a statement saying that his client was friends with Tilghman and "regardless of the choice of words used," she meant no ill intent. Some applauded Woods's measured response and desire to defuse the situation. Others, including NFL Hall of Famer and longtime activist Jim Brown, criticized Woods for missing an opportunity to condemn the use of lynch, which for many evokes images of black bodies hanging limp from ancient trees.

For all of his accomplishments on the course, Woods has not yet escaped the public perception that he doesn't take on the tough, hot-button issues as boldly as he attacks a par-5. "When Tiger said years ago that he was Cablinasian, to me that was a way of avoiding a sort of connection to African-American culture," says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at Southern California and the author of Young, Black, Rich & Famous. "It's his right to define himself as he sees fit, but before we start with his lack of politics, we start with the fact that he has presented himself as an athlete who wants to excel based on his own excellence on the golf course, and there's not much after that."

Woods's handling of the Tilghman controversy even put longtime friends Jariah Beard and Jim Dent in different camps. The two men grew up together in Augusta, where they caddied, played golf and dealt with bigotry's thorns in different ways. Beard, who was on the bag when Fuzzy Zoeller won the 1979 Masters, insists that Woods's response to Tilghman's gaffe was more about protecting his endorsements than friendship. "He handled it the way the white people wanted him to," Beard, 67, says. "That's why he makes so much money. If he says something too much, they'll take away his money or he might get heckled. That's the way he's been. More power to him."

Dent, 68, who never won a PGA Tour event but is a 12-time winner on the seniors tour, disagrees. "When you're in sports, you don't think about the outside things," he says. "You simply do your job and enjoy what you're doing. The lady didn't mean anything. She used the wrong word. If someone was to tell me I was that good, I'd think that was a compliment."

WHEN WOODS is asked why he doesn't speak out more on social issues, his reply is that he addresses them every day through the endeavors of his learning center in Anaheim. For more than a decade he has been the face of the game, an inspiration to minorities and all youth to take up what for many of his admirers is an expensive and time-consuming sport. He is the embodiment of health, focus and hard work, gracious in victory and defeat, a dogged competitor who utters an occasional foul word. As an ambassador of his sport, what more can Woods do?

"I think Tiger handles his role in a way that is comfortable for him," says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., executive director of The First Tee, a Tour-backed youth development program, and son of the great heavyweight champion Joe Louis. "My father was criticized in the 1960s for not being more vocal and because he wasn't Muhammad Ali. They didn't realize what he did to integrate golf [he was the first African-American to play in a PGA-sanctioned event, at the 1952 San Diego Open], what he did for the Army [working to integrate bases and buying tickets for black troops to watch his exhibitions]. He didn't publicize what he did. I get concerned when people want to place expectations on people when they don't recognize the things they are already doing."

Sam Puryear, the only black golf coach at a major Division I program, sees in Woods a golfer pulled in more directions than anyone can know. "I think Tiger is one of those guys who comes along every 100 or 200 years," says Puryear, the coach at Michigan State. "He's been able to transcend all of golf's antiquated views."

Elder's take on Tiger is somewhere in the middle. He appreciates what Woods stands for and applauds the work of his learning center, which assists children of every hue. He marvels at Woods's accomplishments yet says, "I'd like him to be a little more outspoken. Sometimes you have to put something out there that's going to be a focal point for people to listen to and get people to say, 'Hey, maybe he's right. Maybe we should look at making this change.'"

AFTER ELDER played in the 1975 Masters, golf had reason to feel good about itself, or so it seemed. His presence at Augusta National was a sign of progress, to be sure. But it had come too late for men such as Charlie Sifford and Teddy Rhodes and countless other black golfers who had lived for the challenge and the wonder of the game, only to be told they weren't welcome at its best courses or invited to pursue its most coveted trophies. At the time that they were trying to make their way as professionals, golf reflected much of America—segregation, hostility and threats of violence.

For blacks, professional golf meant the United Golf Association (UGA), like baseball's Negro leagues an organization with superior talent but inferior facilities and prize money. Though Brown was scoring touchdowns for the Cleveland Browns and Willie Mays was patrolling centerfield for the San Francisco Giants, the PGA's "Caucasian only" clause didn't come off the books until 1961.

What's more, it wasn't until 29 years later, when Shoal Creek C.C., near Birmingham, gave a black man an honorary membership and made a commitment to integrate to head off protests at the PGA Championship, that many of golf's governing bodies, including the PGA Tour, the PGA of America and the U.S. Golf Association, instituted policies that they would no longer stage tournaments at clubs with discriminatory practices. (Augusta National also accepted its first black member in 1990.)

A handful of blacks went through PGA qualifying school, with Sifford the first to earn membership. Elder gained tour status in '67. "It's very difficult for a Negro to play on the tour," Elder said two years later. "It's not only me, but the others feel the same pressures from the galleries."

Sifford won the 1967 Greater Hartford Open and the '69 Los Angeles Open, only to be ignored by the Masters. Augusta National was still inviting only the players it wanted.

WHEN THE 18-foot birdie putt dropped, its significance had barely registered before PGA Tour official Jack Tuthill put his arm around Elder and whisked him off the green. Elder had just defeated Peter Oosterhuis on the fourth hole of a sudden-death playoff in the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, and he was being led to a police car so he could be escorted to the clubhouse in safety.

It wasn't until 1972 that the Masters began inviting all Tour-event winners. So with his Monsanto victory Elder also secured a trip to Augusta National. He was matter-of-fact, when asked recently about Tuthill's quickly steering him to the patrol car—"I had had several death threats," Elder said—while Oosterhuis got a ride to the clubhouse in a golf cart.

"I wasn't aware of the significance of Lee Elder getting into the [Masters]," says Oosterhuis, then a young player from England without PGA Tour status and now an analyst for CBS and the Golf Channel. "There was a huge cheer when he won, and he was escorted away among cheering friends."

Looking back on that day, Player says, "One of the things that is quite sad for me is that Americans don't know how significant it was what Lee did. Many athletes are given great rewards for their athletic prowess. I think Lee Elder did something that beats the prowess of an athlete."

Elder had grown up poor in Dallas. He was nine when his father, Charles, died in Germany during World War II. His mother, Almeta, rarely left her room after that and died three months later. One of 10 children, Lee was eventually sent to Los Angeles to live with an aunt. As a preteen he picked up work as a caddie and later started hustling for extra money, once playing an 18-hole match cross-handed.

Elder went on to dominate the UGA the way Woods rules the PGA Tour, winning 18 of 22 events in one stretch. But his best days as a golfer had passed by the time he stepped to the 1st tee at the Masters in 1975. He was 40 and, as a regular on the banquet circuit in the 51 weeks between winning in Pensacola and arriving in Augusta, he had put on at least 10 pounds. His telephone never stopped ringing, and his practice habits suffered. His game lost its precision, he says now.

Though Elder may have been leery of Masters officials who had ignored black players through the years, he says Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts greeted him upon his arrival. The media crush became so great during the week that Elder—repeatedly interrupted on his way to practice—asked officials if a pretournament press conference could be arranged, and the club obliged. The questions went on for more than three hours.

Elder tried to keep his usual routine as best he could. He ate bacon, eggs and grits in the morning and played poker and bid whist at night. He counted down to his 11:15 a.m. tee time on Thursday and arrived at the club about an hour early. He received a bouquet of flowers, sent by friends in Washington, D.C. Elder shot 74 that day and 78 the next. Though he missed the cut by four shots, he had received lusty applause at every hole.

Elder went on to play in five more Masters, his best finish a tie for 17th in 1977. He was at Augusta in '97 to watch another historic chapter in golf and race unfold (in his haste to get there, Elder was ticketed for speeding in northeast Georgia): Woods blitzed the field by 12 shots, becoming the youngest champion and the first black champion in the 61 years the tournament had been played. The victory transcended what Elder's generation had only dreamed about. The sleek 21-year-old champion happily posed for a photo with the ground-breaking Elder.

Now 73, Elder will be back at the Masters next week, a visit he has come to treasure. "Augusta National is the most gorgeous place you could be in April," he says. His face, once more, will appear in that clubhouse doorway.

The hate mail had said Elder would never make it to this day in April 1975. WATCH YOUR STEP when you get to Augusta, letter writers warned.

Elder DOMINATED THE UGA the way Woods rules the PGA Tour.

Says Elder of Woods, "I'd like him to be a little MORE OUTSPOKEN."

SPECIAL FOLDOUT: Tiger's Mission
Nothing drives Tiger Woods more than his pursuit of the Bear's record for major titles.


Relive Lee Elder's qualification for the '75 Masters, plus other classic golf stories.


PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckPROGRESS In 1975 Elder (far left) walked Augusta like no other black man before him—as a competitor. At 73, he's still keeping it in the fairway. PHOTOAP[See caption above] PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBISPIONEER Sifford (far left) was the first black to win a PGA event, but it was Elder who made the leap to the Masters with his Monsanto win in '74. At Augusta a year later, he was given a lift to practice, delivered his historic tee shot on Thursday and was welcomed to the 18th green on Friday. TWO PHOTOSBETTMANN/CORBIS[See caption above] PHOTOBETTMANN/CORBIS[See caption above] PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLER[See caption above] PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLERFAN CLUB Elder missed the cut by four shots at his first Masters, but neither Brown (left) nor his new admirers were disappointed in him. PHOTOLEONARD KAMSLER[See caption above] PHOTO PHOTOAMY SANCETTA/APGOOD TIMES Elder, who saw Woods win his first Masters jacket in '97, makes music with a jazz band and puts the hustle on Bill Russell. TWO PHOTOSROBERT BECK[See caption above] PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR. (COVER)

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