Staying the course: How Lee Elder persevered in golf and in life
Elder, the first Black player to qualify and play in the Masters, returns to Augusta National and partners with Stephen Curry to advance equity in the game
Nearly 50 years after Lee Elder became the first Black player to qualify for and play in the Masters Tournament, the trailblazer will take his first turn as an honorary starter for this year’s competition. And while much has changed since Elder, 86, first teed off at Augusta National in 1975, many of the challenges he faced playing the game remain the same for Black golfers today.
“It’s just such an emotional thing to think about — how I, a little Black kid from a Dallas ghetto, was able to rise to the heights of playing in the most prestigious golf tournament in the world,” Elder said.
According to the National Golf Foundation, Black players make up just 3 percent of recreational golfers and 1.5 percent of competitive golfers. Though low, these participation figures still top those of Elder’s era, when lack of access, prejudicial regulations, and threats to personal safety kept Black players out of the game. Elder’s journey helped advance the game, ultimately inspiring golf enthusiast Stephen Curry to support the next generation of BIPOC golfers though Curry Brand powered by Under Armour.
“Lee Elder is legendary. He has spent his entire life breaking down golf’s color barrier, paving the way for future BIPOC golfers both on and off the course,” said Curry. “When I began building Curry Brand, I knew I wanted Lee to be a part of the family, and I’m humbled to be working with him promoting equality in golf and changing the game for good.”
Growing up, Elder faced several hurdles when pursuing his passion for golf. His brother Raymond introduced him to the game, and the duo caddied at Tenison Park Golf Course, just a few miles from downtown Dallas. However, Elder could not play on the same course at which he worked — the nearest course that allowed Black players was about 30 miles north, and only open on Mondays. The passing of both of his parents eventually forced Elder to move to Los Angeles at age 10 to live with his aunt, where a 20-minute bus ride could get him within a block of a golf course for Black players.
“At the time, a lot of the minority players who wanted to pursue golf lived a great distance from the courses that they were able to play on. It was difficult for them to get to these courses, and even more difficult to carry their clubs along the way,” Elder said.
Golf’s segregation, including the PGA Tour’s Caucasian-only rule that lasted until 1961, led to the development of the United Golfers Association, an organization that hosted tournaments in which Elder and his fellow BIPOC players could participate. It was at one of these events where Elder met Ted Rhodes, a player widely recognized as the first Black professional golfer. Rhodes saw Elder’s talent and quickly took the young golfer under his wing, coaching him over the course of a decade until Elder earned his PGA Tour card in 1968.
“We traveled for well over a year and a half with Ted playing in tournaments but me just practicing because he felt that if I started to play while trying to get my game together, I would easily go from one bad round to another and get discouraged,” Elder said.
While Elder incorporated Rhodes’ advice into his game, he also applied it to life on the Tour, refusing to let systemic racism deter him from achieving his goals. In Elder's first year as a PGA player, he had to change clothes in the parking lot of the Pensacola Country Club in Pensacola, Fla., because members would not allow Black players in the clubhouse. In the years that followed, Elder received death threats if he put up a promising performance at a PGA event. Despite these experiences, Elder persevered, and in 1974 won the Monsanto Open — his first professional victory — at the same Pensacola course where he was once denied entry into the club’s facilities. This win made him the first Black player to qualify for the Masters.
Elder played in the 1975 Masters and went on to appear in five more Masters tournaments throughout his career. He was also the first Black player to qualify for and play in the Ryder Cup competition between teams from Europe and the United States, contributing to the winning 1979 U.S. team. Elder ended his career with 16 professional wins, including four on the PGA Tour, eight on the Senior PGA Tour, and four internationally.
In retirement, Elder has made it his mission to support young BIPOC golfers with the Lee Elder Foundation, which aims to break barriers for underprivileged children and adults in golf, business and life. In addition, Augusta National is honoring Elder with two golf scholarships in his name at Paine College, a historically Black college in the Augusta, Ga., area that supported Elder throughout his trips to the Masters. These efforts complement Curry’s commitment to provide six years of funding to the men’s and women’s golf teams at Howard University, another historically Black institution.
When Elder speaks with young golfers today, his advice is simple — sometimes the hardest challenges are the most rewarding.
“I have always said that one of the reasons I took on the challenges of the Tour was because I knew that we had to have someone that would stay the course and help the younger generation that was going to come after us," Elder said. "As long as you too stay the course and continue to work hard at the goal you’ve set for yourself, you will be successful.”
Masters weekend will mark Curry Brand’s expansion beyond basketball gear with the release of the brand’s first golf line on April 9 at UA.com. The Curry Brand collection of men’s apparel and accessories comes on the heels of the fan-favorite UA Range Unlimited Collection launched in collaboration with Curry last summer. Curry Brand will also be donating funds to Ace Kids Golf, an Oakland-based golf program that Elder and Curry partnered to support for the launch of Curry Brand, which will allow the organization to expand its programming to 75 additional Oakland youth in honor of Elder’s accomplishments in 1975.
“Because of the tremendous financial strain of the pandemic, countless recreation centers and programs have been forced to close, leaving local youth with far fewer options for safe, structured fun,” said Preston Pinkney, Director of Ace Kids Golf. “With this donation from Lee Elder, Stephen, and Curry Brand, we can not only support programming for 75 more kids in an effort to bring more equity to the game, but build the next generation of successful athletes both on and off the course.”