Elder, Lee 1934–
Lee Elder 1934–
Learning his sport as a caddy carrying the clubs of white golfers, Lee Elder evolved from a high school dropout and golf “hustler” to become the most successful African American ever on the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour. He repeatedly finished in the money during his 17 years on the regular PGA Tour, then became one of the most consistent winners on the Seniors PGA Tour.
Elder has credited his golfing success to hard work and diligence rather than natural skill. In a game in which players usually come from wealthy backgrounds, he has been among the few to emerge from impoverished beginnings. Long known for handling racial discrimination with dignity, Elder has cited his longtime friend Jackie Robinson as making it possible for people of color to make it in a white-dominated sport. Elder said in the Washington Post Magazine, “If I had to look up to one man, it would be him [Robinson]. He took the hard knocks.”
The origins of golf’s heralded black player were bleak. Elder and his seven brothers and sisters lost their father when he was killed in combat during World War II, and their mother died soon afterward. At age 12 Elder was sent from one ghetto to another, leaving Dallas to live with his sister in Los Angeles. Accompanying him on his move west was an interest in golf that he had developed after seeing his first game in Dallas at age seven or eight. In California, Elder discovered that he preferred caddying to attending school and would often cut classes to be on the links. His early golf training occurred mostly at night, when he would sneak onto the course and play until park officials spotted him and chased him away. He didn’t play a full round of 18 holes until he was 16.
After two years at Manual Arts High School, Elder dropped out to increase his involvement with golf, although his family gave him little encouragement when he mentioned the sport as a possible career. He took jobs in a pro shop in Los Angeles, then in the locker room of the Apple Valley Country Club in San Bernardino County. Developing his game rapidly by observing his caddying clients and playing when he could, Elder became a golf “hustler” at various country clubs. He advanced his hustling skills after meeting Moses Brooks, another black hustler, who took Elder back to Dallas. In Texas, Elder earned local notoriety by winning under bizarre handicaps such as playing on his knees or on one leg. He later paired up with famed hustler Titanic Thompson, posing as Thompson’s caddy. Sometimes Thompson would bet his foes
Born Robert Lee Elder, July 14, 1934, in Dallas, TX; son of Charles (a coal truck driver) and Sadie Elder; married Rose Lorraine Harper (president of Elder & Associates, Inc., a public relations, marketing, and promotions firm), July 18, 1966.
Golfer, business executive, fund-raiser. Worked as a caddy and in a golf shop and country club locker room; golf “hustler” during early 1950s; joined the United Golf Association (UGA) Tour of professional black players, 1961; qualified for Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Tour, 1967; founded Lee Elder Celebrity Pro-Am Golf Classic, 1970; named Goodwill Ambassador to Africa by U.S. State Department, 1972; won first PGA tournament, 1974; established (with his wife, Rose) the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund, 1974, and the Elder Foundation; joined Seniors PGA Tour, 1984. Military service: Served in the U.S. Army, 1959-61.
Selected awards: Set PGA record for rookies by earning money in nine straight professional tournaments, 1968; Lee Elder Day established in Washington, DC, May 3, 1974; became first black golfer to participate in Masters Tournament, 1975; Charles Bartlett Award, 1977; Herman A. English Humanitarian Award from City of Los Angeles, 1977; A. G. Gaston Award, 1978; became first black golfer to qualify for Ryder Cup, 1979; received honorary doctorate of humanities from Daniel Hale Williams University.
Addresses: Office —The Elder Group (consisting of the Elder Foundation and Elder & Associates, Inc.), 1725 K St. NW, Suite 1112, Washington, DC 20006-1468.
that even his caddy could beat them, after which the stakes were increased, Elder stepped up to the tee, and the “caddy” cruised to victory over his shocked opponents.
Elder’s career took a major leap forward after the young golfer played a match with heavyweight boxer Joe Louis in Cleveland and attracted the attention of Louis’s personal golf instructor, Ted Rhodes. Rhodes took Elder under his wing, housing him for three years and taking him to play matches in Havana, Caracas, and Kingston, Jamaica. “He was like a father to me. Whatever success I have attained I owe to him,” Elder was quoted as saying in the Washington Post Magazine.
In 1959 Elder’s golfing skills received another boost from a highly unlikely source—the U.S. Army. After being drafted, Elder was lucky enough to end up at Fort Lewis, Washington. Commanding officer Colonel John Gleaster, an avid golfer, proceeded to put Elder on “golf duty,” attaching him to a special services unit where Elder could play golf on a steady basis for 16 months. While in the service Elder won the championship of his post twice, placed second in the All-Service Tournament in 1960, and lost to future U.S. Open champion Orville Moody in the Sixth Army Championship.
By the time he was discharged in 1961, Elder had honed his golf game to the point where he felt ready to turn professional. He achieved impressive success after becoming part of the United Golf Association (UGA) Tour of professional black players and winning the UGA championship five times. During one stretch he had a remarkable run of 21 victories in 23 consecutive tournaments. Unfortunately, little income could be earned on this circuit, which was known as the “Peanut Tour” due to winners’ shares often being as low as $500. Many of the tournaments were held on public courses that received nowhere near the maintenance of private country clubs.
While playing in Washington, D.C., Elder met his future wife, Rose Harper, who was then competing in the women’s division of the UGA. They were married in 1966, and Rose gave up her career as an executive secretary to become her husband’s manager. In this role Rose Elder played a critical role in her husband’s success as a professional golfer.
After playing all his life with an unusual cross-handed grip, Elder changed to the standard Vardon grip on the advice of Rhodes in 1966. At this time he considered joining the PGA Tour but lacked the $6,500 needed to finance the six-month outing. Without backers, Elder had to generate the money himself, and he did so with some tournament victories and by serving as a private golf instructor. Once equipped with the necessary bankroll, he signed up for the two-week course at the PGA school in West Palm Beach, Florida, in 1967. He finished his instruction with a ranking of nine in a class of 122.
Elder made his presence known on the PGA Tour soon after entering competition. He almost made some money in his first tournament, the Cajun Classic in New Orleans. Then he tied for fifth in his next outing, and tied for third in his third tournament. In 1968 he scored an average of less than 72 strokes per round and put himself on the professional golfer’s map when he tied Jack Nicklaus in the American Golf Classic. Elder barely lost to the legendary golfer after five holes of a sudden death playoff.
Steadily improving as a player, Elder placed 40th on the PGA earnings list in 1968 with winnings of approximately $38,000. He upped his annual take again in 1969, then suffered a period of mediocre play the following year. That slump proved to be an aberration, though, as he bounced back by taking in $49,933 in 1971. Controversy was raised that year when Elder agreed to participate in the South African Professional Golf Association Championship in Johannesburg, after being invited by South African golfer Gary Player. Although American civil rights leaders tried to talk Elder out of accepting due to the country’s apartheid policy, he decided to play after the South African government agreed not to subject him to the usual segregation requirements regarding seating and freedom of movement around the country. Elder also demanded that he be allowed to raise money for a financially bereft black seminary school in South Africa. The South African tournament was the first integrated golfing event in that country, and Elder received an ovation from spectators when he appeared on the course. During his visit to Africa, he also took first place in the Nigerian open tournament.
Elder’s income continued rising in the next two years as he raked in earnings of $70,401 in 1972 and $84,730 in 1973. In 1973 he finished in the top five in four tournaments: the United States Industries Classic, the Greater Hartford Open, the Colonial Invitational, and the Bing Crosby Pro-Amateur. Although a steady performer, Elder felt frustrated by not having won any tournaments. That frustration ended in April of 1974 when he won the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida. His victory also qualified him for the prestigious Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, the following year, making Elder the first African American to qualify since the Masters began in 1934.
Elder’s win at the Monsanto Open turned out to be a mixed blessing for the golf star. He was barraged with requests for interviews and appearances after the win; Lee Elder Day was established in Washington, D.C., the month after the tournament. As Elder spent more time clutching a microphone and less time gripping a golf club, his performance on the links dropped off. He played poorly in the Masters the following spring and finished only 81st in the PGA money rankings in 1975. To reclaim his competitive edge, Elder cut back on his speaking engagements, banquets, and interviews in 1976, and devoted himself fully to playing golf. His new diligence paid off, giving him a top-ten finish in five different tournaments that year. His victory in the Houston Open gave him a $40,000, and he once again qualified for the Masters.
Another high point in Elder’s career came in 1979 when he was the first African American to qualify for play in the Ryder Cup, a team invitational tournament that has featured top professional golfers from all over the world. He earned this coveted membership by finishing 13th in earnings on the 1978 PGA Tour.
Along with his wife, Rose, Elder set up the Lee Elder Scholarship Fund in 1974. This fund created a nonprofit organization offering monetary aid to low-income young people seeking funds for college. One of the organization’s activities, the Lee Elder Invitational Golf and Tennis Tournament, is a charity event that has attracted yearly appearances of up to 10,000 people, among them professional athletes, movie stars, and national politicians. Guests at the tournament have included such luminaries as Michael Jordan, Julius Erving, Bob Hope, Bill Russell, and Johnny Mathis.
In addition to helping the underprivileged, Elder has often spoken out against practices in professional golf that he feels have fostered racist policies in some way. In 1986 he protested when Lanny Wadkins and three other American pro golfers played in a tournament in Sun City, Bophuthatswana, a small area set up by the racist regime of South Africa that surrounds it. Elder contended that the PGA governors should have prohibited the players from participating in that tournament. Elder spoke out again in 1990 over the issue of country clubs that excluded black members. That year the Shoal Creek Country Club in Alabama gave a black businessman an honorary membership to prevent protests at an upcoming PGA Championship scheduled for the course. Elder condemned the agreement as not showing a real commitment to accepting minorities, and, according to Jet magazine, he called it a “sellout.”
At age 50 in 1984, Elder entered a new arena of competition by joining the Seniors PGA Tour. He won his first tournament during his second year on the circuit and soon earned a string of victories in such events as the Digital Classic and the Merrill Lynch and Hilton Seniors tournaments. He also racked up two victories abroad in the Coca-Cola Grand Slam Japan in the mid-1980s.
It seemed that Elder’s golfing career might have ended in 1987, when he suffered a heart attack after playing in the Machado Classic at Key Biscayne, Florida. However, he rebounded from his health problems and won the same tournament one year later, shooting a triumphant final round of 65. By the early 1990s, Elder had logged up earnings of well over $2 million as a professional golfer, including over $1 million on the Seniors Tour.
Elder has continued to help the disadvantaged and speak out against racist policies. He has actively promoted Summer Youth Golf Development Programs, raised money for the Negro College Fund, and served on the advisory boards of Goodwill Industries. Feeling that conditions had improved greatly in South Africa since he participated in the groundbreaking 1971 tournament, Elder returned there in 1989. He justified his reappearance in the apartheid country in Jet, which quoted him as saying,“I really feel it’s just a matter of time [until apartheid is abolished]. You don’t solve a problem by running away from it.” This remark could also have described Elder’s career, during which his relentless dedication helped him escape poverty, overcome setbacks, and become a prominent figure in the world of golf for three decades.
Black Enterprise, September 1990, p. 87.
Facts on File, August 3, 1990, p. 611.
Jet, January 13, 1986, p. 46; August 25, 1986, p. 46;
December 21, 1987, p. 46; December 12, 1988, p. 46;
April 10, 1989, p. 46.
Sports Illustrated, March 10, 1975, p. 24.
Washington Post Magazine, October 7, 1973, p. 16;
April 24, 1974, p. E1.
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