On April 10, 1975, 41-year-old Lee Elder becomes the first Black golfer to play in the Masters, considered the most prestigious event in the sport. Elder shoots 37 on the front and back nine for a 74 at the Augusta (Georgia) National Golf Club and trails leader Bobby Nichols by seven strokes. “I didn’t have any nervousness whatsoever,” Elder says after the round.
In Round 2, Elder shot a 78 and missed the cut in the tournament, won by Jack Nicklaus. Elder had qualified for the Masters by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open.
Many considered Elder’s historic achievement long overdue for the Masters and Augusta National and for a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance. The Professional Golfers Association, the organizer of the main professional tours played by men in North America, didn’t approve participation of African Americans in events it co-sponsored until 1952.
Augusta National didn’t have a Black member until 1990 (businessman Ron Townsend) or female member until 2012 (former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).
“[Elder] was greeted with applause 31 times during his round,” wrote New York Times columnist Dave Anderson. “But it was polite applause, not really enthusiastic, not the emotional bursts that greet Ahnuld Palma, for example. And at no time was Elder’s name on the leader board where he belonged because of his historic round.”
Elder returned to play the Masters from 1977-81. His best finish was a tie for 17th in 1979.
Twenty-two years after Elder’s groundbreaking achievement, Tiger Woods became the first Black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
At the 2021 Masters, Elder was given the honor of hitting the ceremonial opening tee shot alongside six-time champion Nicklaus and three-time winner Gary Player. But he was not well enough to hit a shot.
Elder died on November 28, 2021. He was 87. “The game of golf lost a hero,” Nicklaus said.