#Robert Lee Elder is known as the first African-American to play in the Golf Masters Tournament in 1975. #Elder played 18 holes at the age of 16. He would often take jobs working in locker rooms and pro shops, and caddying while developing his game. He would close watch the game while working for his clients. He got his first big break when he played a match game with heavyweight boxer Joe Louis, which led to Louis’s golf instructor, Ted Rhodes, taking young Elder under his wing for three years. It was not long until Lee had perfected his game as was playing in tournaments.
Elder was drafted into the Army in 1959. He was then sent to Fort Lewis, Washington. He worked under a commanding officer Colonel John Gleaster who was an avid golfer. After Elder’s discharge from the army, he joined the United Golf Association Tour for black players. He had a dominant stretch in which he won 18 of 22 consecutive tournaments, but this tour did not have large prizes, often in the range of hundreds of dollars.
“In 1967 Elder raised enough money to attend qualifying school for the PGA Tour. He finished 9th out of a class of 122 and gained his tour card for 1968. That year, he placed 40th on the money list in 1968, bringing in approximately $38,000. The highlight of Elder’s rookie season was a memorable playoff loss to Jack Nicklaus at the American Golf Classic. Elder took Nicklaus to the fifth hole of sudden death before losing. In 1971 Elder accepted a personal invitation from Gary Player to participate in the South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg, South Africa. The event marked the first integrated tournament in the country’s history. The country had apartheid policies in effect at the time, but he agreed to participate after the South African government agreed not to subject him or spectators to the usual segregation requirements.” Read more.
By 1975, Elder was able to play in the Masters, becoming the first African American person to do so. Before the tournament Elder had received large amounts of hate mail. Because he feared for his safety during the week the tournament was taking place he rented to homes and rotated between them. He never traveled alone.
Elder and his wife created the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund in 1974. The fund was to help low-income young men and women with money who needed help going to college. In 1986 he protested the PGA governors for allowing four American golfers to play in in a tournament in Sun City, Bophuthatswana, a small area set up by the apartheid regime of South Africa that surrounds the area. It was important for Elder to speak out against country clubs that would not allow blacks membership. He actively promoted Summer Youth Golf Development Programs and raised money for the United Negro College Fund.