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.