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Why Lee Elder Should Be In The World Golf Hall of Fame

By: | Mon 27 Dec 2021 | Comments

When Tiger Woods retires within the next decade, we’ll look back on his unprecedented career in awe, having experienced one of, if not the, finest golfers that the sport has ever produced.

Whether he chases down that enticing major record or not, it is evident that Woods has had a one-in-a-billion career and through his own hard work and determination, he has carved his name into golfing folklore for certain eternity.

However, what if Woods was from a different generation; a time where the colour of your skin impacted what you could or could not do.

You see, for Woods to have achieved everything that he has, a foundation needed to be laid, indeed, adversity needed to be slayed.

Lee Elder was one of those men who ultimately created opportunity for golfers like Woods to not only flourish within the professional ranks of golf, but to completely takeover.

Early Life

The early origin of Elder's journey is reminiscent of the mid-1930s in America: large, rounded families but the unknowingness of dark times that would soon obliterate the world.

He was born in Dallas to Charles and Almeta Elder and he was one of ten children. Unfortunately, he was unable to form a strong connection with his parents as his father was killed in action during World War II and his mother passed three years later.

At the age of just 12, Elder found himself bouncing from ghetto to ghetto, clueless in his mission to find stability, before his aunt offered him a place to stay in Los Angeles, California.

Having enrolled into a local school, Elder continuously found himself veering away from his books and cutting classes to work as a caddie.

As his burning love for golf continued to grow rapidly, he opted against an education and dropped out of Manual Arts High School.

By his mid-teens, it was abundantly clear that Elder’s passion in life was golf but an interesting fact about the Texan was that he did not play his first 18-hole round of golf until the age of 16!

Instead, he took jobs in pro shops and working in the locker rooms of country clubs, trying to earn a few bucks here or there and even bolstering his income when he was asked to caddie - carefully watching the club’s better players as his desire to improve remained relentless.

After a few years of playing more frequently, his game started to take shape and he was in a position where he was able to start hustling, which would be his very first experience of earning an income from the sport of golf.

For the majority of successful people, there was typically an interaction that helped influence the direction that they’re career would head into.

For Elder, a round of golf with heavyweight boxer Joe Louis ultimately issued him with the confidence - and contacts - to start taking the game of golf a little more seriously.

Through Louis, he met Ted Rhodes, a golf instructor who took an instant liking to Elder and agreed to help polish his game for him.

Under the wing of Rhodes, Elder began to improve dramatically and the elements of his game which were once regarded as weaknesses were starting to strengthen, and strengthen, and strengthen.

In 1959, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and he was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington.

Fortunately for the then 25-year-old, he was under the command of Colonel John Gleaster - an avid golfer who was obsessed with the game.

Once he realised Elder’s potential, he intentionally placed him in a Special Services unit, which enabled Elder to continue to work on his game and play golf as much as possible.

After two years, he was discharged from the army and joined the United Golf Association Tour (UGA) - an association that thankfully no longer exists.

We’ll start with accrediting the PGA Tour for their progressiveness over the years and the inclusivity that now defines golf is something that every sport can learn from.

However, there was a time where this simply was not the case. Due to this, the United Golf Association Tour was launched, where African-American players competed with one another as the PGA Tour’s policy was “for members of the Caucasian race” only.

This signifies the very start of Elder’s professional journey and it did not take long for the rest of the golfing community to realise just how special he truly was.

Elder had a dominant stretch when playing on the UGA Tour - having won 18 of 22 consecutive tournaments - but this tour failed to mirror the PGA, with prize kitties often in the range of $500 - as opposed to $64,800 being awarded to the winner of the 1961 PGA Championship.

PGA Tour

The colour barrier was lifted from the PGA Tour later in 1961, which resulted in non-white players able to earn membership.

In 1967, Elder raised enough money to attend Qualifying School for the PGA Tour and of the 122 in the field, he finished ninth and gained his touring card for the 1968 season.

He had a wonderful maiden year without recording his first win, although he did come close when he lost to Jack Nicklaus during a playoff at the American Golf Classic.

He finished 40th in the money list that year, earning approximately $38,000 throughout his first 12 months as a PGA Tour member - he would have needed to win more than 80 tournaments to earn that money on the UGA Tour.

In 1971, Elder accepted an invitation from Gary Player to participate in the South African PGA Championship that was held in Johannesburg.

There was a glaring problem, however: the country had apartheid policies in effect at the time. Nevertheless, he bravely accepted the invitation under the condition that he would not be required to segregate and neither would fans who came to see him play.

As the years rolled on, it became apparent that his skill and confidence aligned positively with his experience.

He won the 1971 Nigerian Open before he recorded his maiden PGA Tour victory at the Monsanto Open.

As a consequence of that victory, he had earned himself an invitation to Augusta National, where he would become the first African-American to play in the Masters.

One important thing to note, however, is that Elder was not the first African-American to qualify for the tournament; players such as Charlie Sifford had earned the right to play before being refused by the club.

Thankfully, Elder was not denied access and after two rounds of 74 and 78, he missed the cut and headed back home but this was more than just a mere major appearance.

For the very first time, an African-American was invited through the gates of Augusta National as a competitor: for the very first time, the bystanders around the course were witnessing the first African-American to have a shot at the green jacket - it inspired hope.

He would go on to play in the Masters a further five times, with a best finish of T11 in the year of 1979 - a year that he would record his best-ever finish in three of golf’s four majors.

He would create more history too, as he was selected and part of the 1979 winning Ryder Cup team.

In 1989, content with his professional journey, he transitioned to the Senior PGA Tour, where he would add eight further victories to the four he recorded during his time on the PGA Tour.

His playing career was glittering and to become a multiple-time winner on the PGA Tour is no easy feat, however, it is his actions away from the golf course that should be applauded.

Elder’s Adversity Battles

When it was confirmed that Elder would feature at the 1975 Masters Tournament, an influx of abuse would come his way.

He received heaps of hate mail and, during the tournament week, he vehemently feared for his safety, which influenced the decision to rent two properties and move between them.

Whenever he went out to eat, he ensured that he was surrounded by as many people as possible.

As aforementioned, his maiden PGA Tour victory was the Monsanto Open. In 1968, six years prior to his breakthrough win, the club’s members forced Elder and the other black players to change their clothes in the parking lot as they did not allow African-Americans into the club.

Elder was playing in a tournament in Tennessee when a spectator picked up his ball and threw it into a hedge.

Fortunately, another professional witnessed what had happened and Elder was allowed a free drop but this was a common occurrence for the golfer.

He tried to remain in the zone and focus solely on his golf but the location did not matter, wherever he was, he attracted unruly fans who had likely attended to harass the golfer. 

The endless abuse culminated into something positive however, as Elder and his former wife set up the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund in 1974.

It was developed to offer monetary aid to low-income young men and women who were seeking finances for a college degree.

In 1990, he spoke out against country clubs that still refused membership benefits to black golfers and he raised money for the United Negro College Fund in addition to serving on the advisory boards of Goodwill Industries.

In April 2021, his determination not for just a fairer sport, but a more equal world, was finally rewarded when he took part in the traditional ceremonial start to the Masters.

When he first took to the course in 1975, 46 years before being part of the ceremonial start, he feared abuse, profanity and insults from all directions.

After he returned to be celebrated, he was met with loud cheers, claps and pure admiration of the bravery he displayed throughout his entire life.

His four PGA Tour victories, eight PGA Senior Tour triumphs and four other wins result in a fantastic career that ended in ultimate success.

His drive, character and willingness for a better world propels him far higher than any sporting accolade ever could.

Due to the presence of Elder, we have golfers such as Tiger Woods, Tony Finau and Harold Varner III.

Without this role model, they may not have pursued a career in golf; the sport could have not been as progressive as it is today.

Elder changed the perspective of golf and opened it up to a large proportion of society who were cruelly prohibited from participating.

As a result of bringing the sport to the masses and helping to inspire the likes of Tiger Woods, Lee Elder should be in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

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