Golfer Lee Elder, Color Barrier Breaker At Masters, Named Honorary Starter In 2021

Back in June, Wendell Haskins, a former member of the PGA of America’s executive team from 2014-17 and founder and president of the Original Tee, a company that includes the Original Tee Clothing Brand and the Original Tee Golf Classic, shared a chronology of disturbing events in an open letter to the PGA of America, that paints a picture of the oppressive culture and systemic racism that hindered and marginalized many of his contributions, leading to his departure, just three years after joining the organization.  

In an exclusive Shadow League story, Haskins offered several changes that the PGA could institute to improve its diversity efforts. Renaming or eliminating the Horton Smith Award was one of them. Haskins asserted Horton Smith was “a racist.”

Smith, a two-time Masters winner and president of the PGA from 1952-’54, was a staunch supporter and enforcer of the organization’s Caucasian-only clause, which was part of the PGA’s bylaws from 1934-’61.

By July, The PGA of America announced that it was renaming its Horton Smith Award, effective immediately.

PGA of America responds to former Executive Wendell Haskins

The newly named “PGA Professional Development Award” honors PGA members for outstanding contributions to professional education.

This dark history in the PGA can’t be forgotten. The “whites only” clause isn’t on the books anymore, but the organization hadn’t done much to make amends for the opportunities that they denied so many Black people.

Renaming the award wasn’t a large scale change, but it represented a culture shift and acceptance by the PGA that it had some changes to make.

In renaming the Horton Smith Award, the PGA of America is taking ownership of a failed chapter in our history that resulted in excluding many from achieving their dreams of earning the coveted PGA Member badge and advancing the game of golf,” PGA President Suzy Whaley said in a statement. “We need to do all we can to ensure the PGA of America is defined by inclusion. Part of our mission to grow the game is about welcoming all and bringing diversity to the sport.

Honoring An African-American Golf Pioneer

As this unforgettable and transformative year in our nation’s history winds down, other pro golf organizations and affiliates appear to be joining the movement to end systemic racism within their organizations. The prestigious and totally autonomous Augusta National has stepped up by naming African-American golf pioneer Lee Elder an honorary starter in 2021. Elder, who until recently, has been treated by mainstream media as a mere footnote in the story of American golf is grateful for the acknowledgment. At 86 years old, he needs to smell all of the roses in short order. 

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…Being invited back here to the first tee with Jack and Gary for next year’s Master’s 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.

The Masters is golf’s premier event and until Lee Elder broke through in 1975, the tournament didn’t allow Black players to participate.

Played in Augusta GA, 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.

Elder would qualify from 1977-81 with his best finish coming in 1979 when he tied for 17th. 

To commemorate those pioneering moments, Elder will join the great Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on Day 1 of the 2021 Masters Tournament as an honorary starter. This year’s event begins starts on (Thursday) Nov. 12 and ends on (Sunday) Nov. 15 and is highlighted by 44-year-old Tiger Woods defending his unfathomable 2019 Masters win

Augusta National Extends First Olive Branch To Black America

In addition to honoring Elder (a suggestion offered by Haskins years ago), Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced the creation of two scholarships in Elder’s name. The scholarships will be awarded to a man and woman on the golf teams at Paine College an HBCU in Augusta GA.

Currently, the school doesn’t have a women’s golf team, but Ridley said that will soon too change with “Augusta Nationals commitment to provide 100 percent of the funding needed to launch a women’s golf program at Paine College”.

When Arnold Palmer passed in 2016, Nicklaus and Player started this tradition. It appears that Elder will be granted this honor at a time when his accomplishments, challenges, and remarkable journey is 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 have emerged to profess their disgust with George Floyd’s brutal killing at the hands of Minneapolis police. These formerly oppressive institutions are promising to make changes within their own cultural structures that will enhance diversity.

Honoring Elder and adding the HBCU scholarships to the 2021 tournament is 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.” 

Black Golf Is More Than Just Tiger Woods

The world will also finally get to know the story of Lee 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’s been 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 23 years ago. He arrived just as Tiger was about to Tee off for the final round, holstering a nine-shot lead.

Woods wrote of 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.”

Lee Elder was emotional after Tiger won his first Green Jacket

The spotlight on Elder at the 2021 Masters will educate 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 follow.

The long-overdue honor also implies a shift in the way that golf’s power organizations and the keepers of its culture, will treat Black people in the future.

For now, these are changes you can see on the surface. We’ll continue to monitor whether or not we see the same changes being instituted at the executive levels as it pertains to diversified hiring and overall racial inclusiveness.