Lee Elder’s black-clad supporters wanted him to win the 1991 Masters, but the African-American golfer didn’t reach the top of the leaderboard.
On Friday, the American professional golfer died after collapsing during practice on the course at Pebble Beach Golf Links in California. He was 58.
“It is with a heavy heart that I confirm the passing of my friend Lee Elder in a tragic accident yesterday. We lost a great man and a great champion,” Woods said in a statement. “Lee gave so much to our sport and the game will truly miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
It was Elder’s second Masters victory after finishing second to Charles Howell in 1994. His last match was at the 2003 Deutsche Bank Championship.
Lee Elder had some long battles with depression. I know the depression wasn’t the cause of his death, but his battle with that will never go away. https://t.co/r2lX7sX56f — Jim Miller (@JimMillerGC) December 14, 2018
“We’re kind of at a loss in a lot of ways here, and many places around the world, to see the sort of impact that Lee has had on the sport,” 2013 Masters champion Bubba Watson told reporters. “I think [playing the tournament] was always a dream to him to tee off in what is one of the biggest events in golf, and just to be able to be there for him has been really emotional for everyone on this golf course.”
Many will remember Elder for his book, The Game of Life, a guide to playing the sport on an African-American golf course in the summer. It won the National Book Award for African-American writing in 1994.
“By a mutual agreement, the early going of this season in the sport will not allow Tiger Woods to join Lee Elder and nine other black golfers and women, in providing the spotlight to the clubs and facilities where many of them play,” the former golf writer for The Associated Press, Pam Falk, wrote in the newspaper’s 1997 analysis of black play in the sport.
“The struggle for racial equality in golf peaked in 1973 with the admission of two blacks to professional PGA events. In the next nine years, another nine blacks and six women were accepted to PGA events. There is no museum at Augusta National, the host of the Masters each year, to honor the contributions of the Negro — although that may change. One of the guests at a dinner for the record number of blacks who played in the tournament in 1973 was Fred Ridley, then director of instruction at Augusta. Ridley, who is now president of Augusta National Golf Club, has said that admitting blacks to the membership was the organization’s top priority.”
Elder admitted he felt self-conscious on the course, even when he won.
“When I’m not hitting fairways and greens, it’s pretty nerve-racking for me. I don’t like that feeling,” he said after the 1991 tournament, according to The Washington Post. “I want to be hitting birdies when I’m walking off the green at the end of the day.”
In 2016, the son of Elder’s best friend and fellow golfer Junior Hopkins released a book in which he described how Elder had told him he had twice been shot and hospitalized for depression and bipolar disorder in the 1980s.
“I came to know Lee’s tragic side in the past few years. On occasion, he had suffered from something much more serious than golf aches and pains — panic attacks, depression, bipolar disorder. All up, Lee spent more than three years recovering from pneumonia, a heart attack, two stints in the hospital and a stint in a psychiatric ward.”
According to The New York Times, Lee Elder’s oldest son, Drake Elder, said in a statement, “My dad always said that golf was his race and everyone else his color. My father was all for equality for all people, and that included his family. In this moment, all I know is that he is free to be who he wanted to be.”