The Last Pealer: Lee Elder, first Black golfer to play at Augusta, dies at 87

Lee Elder, who was the first Black golfer to play at the Masters in 1965, has died. He was 87.

A member of the Golf Hall of Fame, Elder shared one of the last rites with Saints Peter and Paul in southern New York early Friday morning, his family said.

According to the Akron Beacon Journal, Elder qualified for the Masters in 1964 and was in the second round when he suffered a punctured lung after an errant drive.

When the tournament was stopped, Elder asked whether all players in his group had finished and then decided to go back to the 18th green. He walked to the center of the green and hit a 3-wood shot into the water to finish his round.

A staple of the Washington Post’s sports pages for two decades, Elder would not return to Augusta National until 1990 and didn’t play again until 2003. He shared the story of his infamous first shot at the Masters with writer Jim Davis in 1999, saying, “We had nothing in common except the fact that we played Augusta.”

“He cared so much about the game of golf,” his former chairman, John Doak, told the AJ. “I think when you think of sports figures that have given you their total commitment, he was certainly one of them.”

The native of Greenwood, Tennessee, was a big part of the 1970 Ryder Cup, helping the United States clinch a 10-4 victory. He is also a member of the Kentucky Country Club Hall of Fame and the Atlanta Athletic Club Hall of Fame.

His devotion to the game was noted during a 2005 interview with Tiger Woods.

“I’m his oldest player, he wants to be our best player, and I just want to let him know that I’ve always wanted to be the best player in the world,” Elder said. “He’s been there for the last 10 years.”

Elder earned six PGA Tour wins, including the 1957 Colgate Open, two McGladrey (1965-66) and the 1963 Winston-Salem Open. A 1963 PGA Championship runner-up, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

“What he brought to our game was total passion,” Davis said. “It was a passion for the game of golf that never wavered. He never gave up.”

Elder grew up playing with golf legend Hogan. While Hemmings was busy making the game better for African-Americans, Elder pushed the game to an even higher level. He drove the ball over 300 yards for size and was second in putting average.

That, of course, was not enough.

“That’s why he was so famous,” Billy Payne, the former Augusta National chairman, told the AJ. “He was a unique competitor.”

Elder was born on July 18, 1931, and spent most of his childhood in Mississippi. He learned the game on the Monroe Junior Golf Course in the tony southern suburb of Atlanta and went on to the University of Georgia, where he made two U.S. Junior Opens.

After graduation, Elder and his family moved to Birmingham, where he became one of the city’s top amateur players. He moved to Richmond after winning the 1957 Colgate Open to put his career on track and joined the PGA Tour in 1961.

Elder topped the PGA by winning his first two tournaments, the 1955 Phoenix Open and the 1956 Florida Open. In 1966, he finished a career-best second at the McGladrey Classic and received the William H. Rogers Trophy, given to the most outstanding tournament, after spending a week at Augusta National while finishing second at the Masters.

He won the Fort Worth Shootout in 1968, 1976 and 1977 and teamed with Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the 1978 Boston Marathon for a personal-best time. In 1978, Elder became the first president of the Golf Hall of Fame and stayed in the role for nine years.

He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Helen, sons Michael and Karl, daughter Cindy Earle and grandchildren Peter, Rebecca, Courtney, Mary and Whitney.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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