Lee Elder got to smell his roses before he passed away at the age of 87. The PGA Tour confirmed on Monday that the golf pioneer and first Black person to play in the Masters transitioned 46 years after his historical accomplishment.
The outpouring of love from Black Twitter and mainstream sports outlets is the final confirmation that Elder’s historical accomplishments will be recognized forever.
Mr. Lee Elder… one of my heroes… words don't do justice to the impact you had on golf and the Black community. All I can say right now is thank you for blazing the trail. It's on us to stay the course and keep going in your honor. Rest easy legend 🙏🏽 pic.twitter.com/la0ccbBp5N
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) November 29, 2021
Black Golf Is More Than Just Tiger Woods
Before he left this earth, the world finally got to know the story of Elder, a golf pioneer whose legacy is overshadowed by the cultural phenomenon that is Tiger Woods and the willingness of the golf community to be complicit in burying African-American success underneath the golf greens, way down in the bunker.
Prior to Tiger winning that first Masters on April 13, 1997, Elder had known and mentored the son of Earl Woods since he was 14 years old. Nothing was more satisfying to Elder than watching his former mentee explode into the GOAT on the links.
As legend has it, Elder caught a speeding ticket on the way to the golf course on the final day of Tiger’s historic moment 24 years ago. He arrived just as Tiger was about to tee off for the final round, holstering a nine-shot lead. It was an official passing of the baton. Elder and Woods shared a brief moment before Tiger stepped to tee off.
Woods wrote about the conversation in his 2017 book “The 1997 Masters: My Story.”
“He wished me well for the round and that made me even more determined to take care of business
Pioneers Emerge From The Suffocating Effects Of Racial Opression
The spotlight on Elder at the 2021 Masters in April educated people on golf’s true history and the Black golfers such as Elder and Calvin Peete who laid the foundation for Tiger Woods and the golfers of color who followed.
The long-overdue honor also implied a shift in the way that golf’s power organizations and the keepers of its culture will treat Black people in the future.
It was a long road for Elder, who had to overcome the systemic racism that has been prevalent in the sport of golf. Elder broke through Augusta’s race barrier at the 1975 edition of the famous competition.
Honoring The Life Of An African-American Golf Pioneer
2020 was an unforgettable and transformative year in our nation’s history. There was a racial reckoning, especially in sports, that eventually reached the doorsteps of golf’s governing body. As the year came to a close, various organizations and affiliates throughout pro sports started joining the movement to do some self-reflection and consider the systemic racism that has plagued their organizations for decades.
The prestigious and totally autonomous Augusta National stepped up by naming African-American golf pioneer Lee Elder an honorary starter in 2021. Elder, who was battling various illnesses for the past decade, was elated to finally be acknowledged for his contributions to the sport.
“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream and to this day remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life…,” Elder said. “Being invited back here to the first tee with Jack and Gary… means the world to me.”
The world of professional golf has long been considered one of the last bastions of white privilege and elitism, continuing a system of social segregation that keeps Black golfers, entrepreneurs, and employees on the outside looking in.
Played in Augusta, Georgia, the winds of progression blew fiercely when Elder made the cut to become the first African-American to play in the world’s most prestigious pro golf tourney, which previously didn’t allow Blacks to participate.
Elder would qualify from 1977-81 with his best finish coming in 1979 when he tied for 17th. To commemorate those pioneering moments, Elder joined the great Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on Day 1 of the 2021 Masters Tournament as an honorary starter.
Augusta National Extends First Olive Branch To Black America
In addition to honoring Elder, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced the creation of two scholarships in Elder’s name. The scholarships were awarded to a man and woman on the golf teams at Paine College, an HBCU in Augusta.
We all belong. Such wonderful news to hear from Augusta National in celebration of Lee Elder. https://t.co/OAIKQGvmt6
— Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) November 9, 2020
Currently, the school doesn’t have a women’s golf team, but Ridley said that will soon too change with “Augusta National’s commitment to provide 100 percent of the funding needed to launch a women’s golf program at Paine College”.
Elder was a huge proponent of this funding and had high hopes for the endeavor.
“It’s very important for the program to get started and get going because there’s so much that can come from it,” Elder told Golf Week as he was being honored with an honorary doctoral degree from Paine. “The only way that you can get something to come from it and to have it be a part of is the fact that you have to work at it.”
Paine announced March 31, 2021, it would be joining the National Christian College Athletic Association, joining the DI South Region. Dr. Cheryl Evans Jones, Paine president, said the college is aiming for a fall 2022 start for its golf programs.
Carry On Tradition
When golf icon Arnold Palmer passed in 2016, Nicklaus and Player started this tradition. Elder was granted the honor at a time when his accomplishments, challenges, and remarkable journey was magnified by the issues of injustice and racial inequality that have moved to the front of our social consciousness.
With the recent events in this country, corporations and organizations known for their mistreatment of African-Americans emerged to profess their disgust with George Floyd’s brutal killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. These institutions promised to make changes within their own cultural structures that will enhance diversity.
Honoring Elder and adding the HBCU scholarships to the 2021 tournament was Augusta National’s clear apology to Black America for past transgressions.
In a statement by Augusta National and The Masters, the organization said that like all organizations they were moved by the events of 2020. With so much said about racial injustice, they wanted to “do something and not just talk about it.”
For now, these are changes you can see on the surface. They are a reflection of the life and times of racial barrier-breaker Lee Elder. The Jackie Robinson of golf didn’t die without getting his well-deserved hero’s farewell from his colleagues, fans, media and the sport that supressed his talents for so long before his magnificence was too obvious to deny. Elder fittingly ended up on the right side of history.
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