Sportsman endured racist threats on his way to breaking racial barriers
“As long as I’m alive, golfers will be White and caddies will be Black.”
—Quote attributed to Augusta National
Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts
On April 10, 1975, Robert Lee Elder strolled onto the golf course in Augusta, Ga. clad head to toe in green slacks, shirt, and sweater. In spite of the misty weather, he declined a rain suit, opting to show off his matching ensemble, the trademark color of this, the site of one of the four major championships in professional golf (built upon a former indigo plantation).
Elder, who became the first African-American golfer to compete in the Masters Tournament, died this past Sunday, Nov. 28 at 87 in Escondido. He’d reportedly been in ill health recently due to respiratory issues although no cause of death was revealed.
Elder picked up the game in his native Dallas, Texas, initially hitting the ball cross-handed, before assuming a more traditional approach under the tutorial-age of Teddy Rhodes (golf instructor to boxer Joe Louis). As a transplant to Los Angeles, he continued to caddie as a means to support his family while attending Manual Arts High School before dropping out.
Induction into the army and a fortuitous posting under a golf enthusiast commander afforded him time to develop his game, before his 1961 discharge and entry into the United Golf Association Tour (UGA) for Black players.
Elder progressed to the point where he earned attention from golfing giants Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, along with invitations to play in more prestigious (and previously banned) venues. The order of the times forced him and other Blacks to change clothes in their cars before competition on the greens, along with enduring death threats and other harassment.
In 1975, Elder made history in Augusta, Ga., when he was invited to compete at the Masters Open, the most prestigious tournament in golf.
Elder didn’t win the Masters in 1975. Jack “The Golden Bear” Nicklaus took that honor as Elder missed the “cut” (that point in a tournament when the field of competitors is reduced) by four strokes. His mere presence on the greens was and is a feat unto itself, and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to play on an increasingly level playing course.
Elder played in five more Masters, won three PGA tournaments, and was named to the 1979 Ryder Cup Team. He had a combined 12 tournament victories on the PGA and Senior Tours.