How do we measure athletic greatness? How many big wins and unforgettable championships?
Or by something less obvious but perhaps deeper: an athlete’s determination to go against the grain and upset the status quo in sport and society, even at the risk of personal injury?
If that last measure is as true a test as any, we need to make room for Lee Elder’s pantheon of all-time greats. A tireless African-American golfer, he died on Sunday at the age of 87, nearly half a century after opposing the mind-numbing stain of racism and became the first black golfer to play at the Masters, opening the way no less than Tiger Woods.
“He was the first,” said Woods, shortly after surprising the sports world by winning the Masters in 1997 at the age of 21. “He was the one I admired. Thanks to what he did, I was able to play here, which was my dream.
What a trip, what a life. The harsh and tumultuous arc of sport in the latter half of the 20th century – indeed the arc of American history at this time – can be traced through Elder.
He was a black man born in the Jim Crow South who learned to play golf on his own on separate courses and perfected his craft during the barnstorming golf tour similar to black leagues in baseball.
He dreamed of reaching the bigger stage, but professional golf took its time as sports like baseball, basketball and soccer slowly integrated. The Association of Professional Golfers retained its exclusively Caucasian clause until 1961.
The elder never wavered. He broke through on the PGA Tour in 1968 at the age of 34. Around this time, with the battle for civil rights well underway, the Masters began to receive pressure to add at least one black player to their squad. In 1973, a group of 18 congressional representatives even petitioned the tournament for it. Elder was among the top 40 silver winners on tour and had appeared in several US Opens and PGA Championships – so why not Augusta National?
But after choosing not to invite outstanding black golfers such as Charlie Sifford in the 1960s, the tournament set itself a strict requirement for its participants: victory at a PGA Tour event.
Elder won this at the 1974 Monsanto Open – the same event in Florida where, six years earlier, he had been forced to change clothes in a parking lot because black people were not allowed to use the country locker rooms. club.
Elder possessed a quiet but firm determination. He wasn’t quick to make a big fuss about racism, but he wasn’t afraid to talk about it either. “The Masters never wanted a black player, and they kept changing the rules to make it harder for black,” he said, adding: “I pulled them out of the way. ‘business by winning. “
Since its creation in 1934, the Masters has been steeped in the pre-war codes of the South. Held at the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, on a former indigo plantation, the only African Americans allowed on the course were keepers and caddies. No one has described the Masters more truthfully than Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray. The tournament, he wrote in 1969, was “as white as the Ku Klux Klan”.
In the months leading up to the 1975 Masters, Elder was the target of multiple death threats. “Sometimes he was sent to the course where I was playing, sometimes he would come to my house,” he said. “Stuff like, ‘You better look behind the trees,’ ‘You won’t get to Augusta. It was a bad thing, but I expected it.
But on April 10, 1975, he was standing there, at the first tee, surrounded by a gallery full of close friends, including football star Jim Brown. When Elder smashed his tee shot straight down the fairway, he not only made history at the Masters, he opened the cloistered and often racist world of golf to new possibilities.
Looking at the contours of his career beyond 1975, we see a constant solidity. He won three more PGA Tour titles, then eight on the Senior Tour and represented the United States at the Ryder Cup. It will always be a great unknown – the heights Elder could have reached had the opportunities been level and he had been able to compete in PGA Tour events in his prime.
We can say it with certainty: Elder set himself in the firmament of sports history at the Masters in 1975. He will always remain there, a pole star for others to follow.
Woods arrived just over two decades later, winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes and announcing himself as the heir not only to Elder but to Jack Nicklaus, who won six times at Augusta. As Woods passed a gallery of amazed fans on his way to receive the champion’s green jacket for the first of five times, he saw Elder, and the two kissed. The past has met the present, opening up the future.
And yet the path to equality in golf remains elusive. The sport was extremely white in Elder’s day and extremely white when Woods burst onto the scene. It remains mostly white.
The game is “slacking off a bit” when it comes to diversity, said Cameron Champ, 26, whose mother is white and father black, of Elder this week. Champ is one of the few African-American players on tour and one of the most vocal about the need to diversify.
It wasn’t until this year – driven by tumultuous nationwide protests against racism and police brutality in 2020 – that the Masters really gave Elder his due.
In April, alongside Nicklaus and Gary Player, Elder sat down to Augusta National’s first tee as an honorary starter for this year’s tournament. Tubes threaded their way through his nose to supply him with oxygen. He was too shackled to shoot.
A gallery of tournament players stood nearby, paying homage to a golfer whose greatness extended far beyond the fairway. The cool, cool morning had a respectful and unforgettable atmosphere, recalls Champ, whose paternal grandfather fell in love with golf in part because of Elder and then taught his grandson the game.
But it took 46 years for golf to honor Elder at the Masters. Think about it.
Why didn’t that happen in 1985, the 10th anniversary of its crushing of the Augusta National color range? Or in 1995, 20 years after the events? Or at any other time?
Why does change always have to take so long?