Best of Golf Digest
My Shot: Lee Elder
Editor’s note: In celebration of Golf Digest's 70th anniversary, we’re revisiting the best literature and journalism we’ve ever published. Catch up on earlier installments.
Lee Elder became the first black golfer to appear on the cover of Golf Digest, in December 1968, because of a spectacular finish in the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club. At the end of 72 holes, Lee was tied with Jack Nicklaus and Frank Beard heading into a sudden-death playoff for the $25,000 first prize. It started on the 625-yard 16th hole with Elder making a 25-foot birdie, Nicklaus holing from 16 feet for a birdie to tie and Beard parring to drop out. Nicklaus and Elder matched shot for shot five more holes until Nicklaus birdied to win. “Elder did more for Negro golf in 45 minutes than everybody else put together had done in 45 years,” said USGA president Maxwell Stanford.
A quiet man who let his clubs do the orating, Elder broke through to win the 1974 Monsanto Open, making him the first black to receive an invitation to the Masters, in 1975. The point of these two accomplishments—before and after them—is that Lee Elder earned everything he got in golf. One of 10 children, an orphan at 9, he received the highest award given by the USGA, at age 85, with the 2019 Bob Jones Award for Sportsmanship. “Your life will have meaning for years and centuries to come,” Jim Nantz said to Elder that night.
The presentation was made by Gary Player, who remembered bringing Lee to Africa to play a series of tournaments. “For the first time ever, there were young black children coming to the golf course not to caddie, but to watch Lee, and you should’ve seen the looks on their faces,” Player said. Sitting in the audience that night, I thought Elder was as deserving as anyone who ever won the Jones Award. Listening to his raw voice telling golf stories, I remembered a line that the amateur great Jess Sweetser said on the night he won the Jones Award in 1986 at age 83: “What took you so long?” Sweetser said. “You almost missed me.” Jess died the following year.
But we still have Lee Elder as one of the game’s heroes of indomitable spirit. Senior Editor Guy Yocom caught up with him to reminisce about Elder’s improbable career against the odds of being black in a white man’s game. With the backdrop of this month’s protests of social injustice throughout the country, it’s good to hear Lee’s voice again, from the September 2019 issue. —Jerry Tarde
I just received the Bob Jones Award. It’s the biggest honor there is in golf. When you’re given an award by the USGA that goes out only once a year, you know it’s special. The presentation was during the week of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. Accepting the award and speaking after Gary Player and Jim Nantz gave their introductions took some doing emotionally. After I finished, Jack Nicklaus approached me and said, “Lee, that was one of the finest speeches I’ve ever heard.” But it was Barbara Nicklaus who almost brought me to tears. She approached me privately, put her hand on my arm and said, “Jack has said so many nice things about you to me over the years. He admires you so much.” That statue has gone with me everywhere lately. It’s a heavy thing, and my wife, Sharon, has wrapped and unwrapped it a hundred times to show people. I’m always carrying on, scolding her not to hurt it. I can’t help it. It’s the nicest recognition I’ve received in my whole life.
I’m best known for being the first black man to compete in the Masters, back in 1975. The victory that got me into the Masters was the Monsanto Open in late April 1974. I beat Peter Oosterhuis in a playoff. After I holed out, the PGA Tour’s tournament director, Jack Tuthill, directed me to a police car. That surprised me, because I expected the trophy presentation would be outdoors. I said, “What’s going on, Jack?” Jack, a former FBI man, explained that death threats had been coming in all morning and that it would be safer if the presentation was indoors, back at the clubhouse. Jack said driving there in a police car would be safer than a golf cart. I agreed and understood the situation. It wasn’t the first time a black athlete had received death threats, and it wasn’t the last. But I was thrilled to win.
During the presentation in the clubhouse, Cliff Roberts [then the chairman of Augusta National] called asking to speak with me. I couldn’t come to the phone, so Cliff asked that I return his call that evening. That wasn’t practical—the press conference and dinner at the club lasted until past 11 p.m. It was my first PGA Tour victory. I really wanted to celebrate. Cliff called the next morning. “Lee, this is Cliff Roberts,” he said. “Yes, sir, Mr. Roberts, how are you?” I replied. He said, “I’m just calling to extend an invitation to the Masters to you, and I’d like to know if you’ll be coming.” I said, “Well, I’m sorry, but I can’t say for sure right now. It really depends on what I’m involved in.”
I just wanted to give Cliff a taste of his own medicine. I knew there were examples where he’d held people off without giving them answers right away. My attorney, Reuben Payne, had advised me not to be too hasty. He told me the Masters had been one of the tournaments that had not been favorable toward blacks, and that I shouldn’t give them what they wanted immediately.
Not many people know it, but winning the Monsanto Open did not automatically qualify me for an invitation to the Masters. It was a satellite event, and under the criteria at the time, Cliff was not required to invite me. Still, I didn’t feel they were making much of an effort to get black players in when they could have found a way. It sometimes felt just the opposite was true. In 1971, when I won the Nigerian Open, I hoped I’d be invited to play in the Masters, because previous winners of that tournament had been invited. A congressman from New York named Herman Badillo asked Cliff Roberts if I’d be receiving an invitation, and Cliff’s reply was, “Mr. Elder is an American, and we offer exemptions only to foreign winners of the Nigerian Open.” That’s what I’m talking about. I felt they were deliberately working around giving a black person an invitation. Charlie Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967 and should have gotten in, but he never did hear from them. I just thought it was wrong and that I’d hesitate a little before accepting.
Of course, I did accept Cliff’s invitation shortly thereafter. It was the Masters, after all. The rest of 1974 was intense. Suddenly I was big news, and I spent much of the year attending banquets, giving speeches, playing exhibitions and so on—chasing the almighty dollar. My game and body went to hell. When I won the Monsanto Open, I weighed 155 pounds, but by the end of the year I’d ballooned to 210 from going to all those banquets. I figured that with the one-year exemption I got from winning Monsanto, I’d have plenty of time to catch up and make a lot of money in tournaments, but it didn’t happen. By the time I got to Augusta the following April, my game was in rough shape.
Nothing could have prepared me for that week at the Masters. On Monday, there were so many photographers, reporters and TV people wanting time individually, I squeezed in only six holes. The demand put a strain on Augusta National, too. Finally the club arranged a Tuesday press conference in the hope of taking care of everything all at once. The conference lasted three hours. The attention reinforced that I wasn’t representing just a country, but an entire race of people. It was nearly overwhelming.
Months before that Masters, the death threats started coming in. I wasn’t concerned about anything happening to me at the club, because security was excellent. I had two bodyguards with me at all times. It was the time away—driving in my car, especially—that worried me. So I rented two houses, one on Washington Road and another on Wheeler Road. Every night, I switched houses. I felt better, but even then there were lots of racist shouts while we were in traffic, cold treatment at local stores, the usual stuff. It was a different time.
In those days, driving was when I always felt most vulnerable. Playing the UGA [United Golf Association] tour, we really learned places to watch out for. We chose our routes carefully. The larger cities generally were safe, but there were small pockets of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia that were just plain dangerous. The scariest area was the Florida Panhandle, the small towns around Tallahassee. Even into the 1970s, black people frequently would just disappear in these areas, with no trace and no publicity. We gave those areas a wide berth, tried to travel during the day and stay close to each other.
Early in the week at Augusta, I went with my party of 12 to a well-known restaurant. It was 5 p.m., and they were just opening for the evening. The place was empty. They turned us away, said they were booked up. I’d seen this type of thing before. Maybe they did have reservations for later, but we could have eaten and been gone. The press got wind of the incident and wrote about it. The next day, I got a call from Dr. Julius Scott, president of Paine College there in town. “Lee, I’d like to extend an invitation for you and your party to eat here at Paine every night this week.” I took him up on that, and it was a highlight of the week. Nice and quiet, so welcoming. Good food, too.
I chose my outfits carefully. I really wanted to look my best. I wore an orange outfit on Tuesday, and for my practice round on Wednesday wore a red shirt and slacks. I went with a green ensemble for the opening round on Thursday. On Friday, I chose lavender. I had some cool stuff lined up for the weekend but didn’t make it that far. I shot 74 and 78 to miss the cut by four.
I was paired with Gene Littler and Miller Barber the first two rounds. Before we teed off, Gene took me aside. “This is probably going to be the hardest round you’ll ever play,” he said. “If I get in your way, just shout at me. I’m a little flaky and can get in my own little world out there, so do what you have to do to get my attention. I’ll understand.” As for Miller, he could be fidgety and distracting to play with, but he played those two rounds like he was in church. I think the club grouped me with them deliberately, to make it easier. I was grateful for that.
Even with Gene helping me feel at ease, I’ve never been so nervous as hitting my drive off the first tee on Thursday. It seemed like so much was riding on it, which is silly because it’s only one shot. It was such a strange pressure. I hadn’t been playing well, and as I teed my ball, I made a silent wish that I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I really fought to keep the negative thoughts out. I hit a great tee shot, a nice draw, straight and long. I can’t describe the relief.
At every green, both days, the receptions were incredible. The applause was so sincere and respectful, and lasted so long. What amazed me was the number of black people who showed up to watch me play. I couldn’t begin to guess how many there were, but it was far more than I’d seen at a golf tournament before. It dawned on me that many of them probably weren’t affluent. How did so many manage to obtain one of the toughest tickets in sports? The effort they undertook to get there, the financial sacrifices many of them surely had to make, must have been tremendous. I so wanted to perform well for them, or at least comport myself well.
The display from the employees of Augusta National was especially moving. Most of the staff was black, and on Friday, they left their duties to line the 18th fairway as I walked toward the green. The other patrons cleared the way for them to come to the front, and they were instantly recognizable by their uniforms. This took planning on the part of the employees and moved me very deeply. I couldn’t hold back the tears. One club employee shouted in this booming voice that rose above the applause, “Thank you for coming, Mr. Elder!” Other employees, taking his cue, shouted the same thing. Of all the acknowledgements of what I had accomplished by getting there, this one meant the most.
I’ve always spoken well of the Masters, and meant it, because I believe people are good at heart. If you treat people how you’d like to be treated, they’ll come around eventually. I love going there.
I don’t want to sound immodest, but you have to put me up there on the list of good black players. I won four times on the PGA Tour, eight times on the Champions Tour and four tournaments internationally. I didn’t make it to the tour until 1968, when I was 33. I ran smack into the era of Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Ray Floyd, Hubert Green, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller and so many others. It was so hard to beat those guys. My rookie year, I got into a sudden-death playoff against Jack at the American Golf Classic, at Firestone in Akron. It was practically in Jack’s back yard, the crowd was with him, and Jack beat me on the fifth extra hole. I played as well as I knew how. I thought, If I run into this every week, I’m going to have a hard time winning out here.
Another career highlight was playing on the 1979 Ryder Cup team captained by Billy Casper. The team was loaded with guys like Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, Hubert Green and Larry Nelson. It was a strong group, but the real secret was Billy and what he did in the team room. He’d brought these giant bushel baskets of peaches from his home in Utah. Every night, he’d park those peaches in the team room and ask who we wanted to play with. Those peaches were so sweet and juicy, you’d take a bite, and they’d explode, juice going everywhere. Someone would grab a peach, take a bite and say, “I’ll take Larry.” We were like kids choosing up sides in a sandlot baseball game. It was impossible to get uptight in that environment. Billy knew exactly what he was doing with those peaches. We won, 17-11.
Billy passed away a few years ago, and I sure do miss him. I never once saw him get angry, on the course or off. He had this incredible come-what-may attitude. At one point, he put on a lot of weight. But he didn’t seem to mind. One evening, Sharon and I were to meet him in a hotel lobby to go to dinner. We waited over an hour and began to get worried. Finally here he came, with a big grin on his face. “Sorry, but I got stuck in the bathtub,” he said. “I had to wait for one of my sons to come get me out.”
By 1966, I’d been making a lot of money on the UGA tour. A lot of people told me that I had to make a try at the PGA Tour, that the big show would be easy. I didn’t believe them. Psychologically, I thought I could only do well on pea-patch courses against players not named Arnold Palmer. I didn’t realize that my game could travel anywhere and that I was as good if not better than most the players on tour. I was 31 and had been beating a lot of tour-level players in money games for years, but still I doubted myself. Lack of confidence and low self-esteem is always an issue among minorities and people from the wrong side of the tracks. But the encouragement moved me to enter the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club.
I made the cut at the ’66 U.S. Open, and it changed my outlook. One thing that inspired me was playing the first two rounds with a young man from San Francisco named Johnny Miller. He was 19 years old and a little green, but man, could he hit it. What impressed me was his confidence. He didn’t know the other players any more than I did, but he gave off this air like he belonged. I thought, I need to be more like that kid.
When I tell people about Teddy Rhodes’ greatness, they sometimes look at me like he couldn’t have been that good. But he truly was great, a full notch up from me and the other black players. It was Teddy who helped me when I was about 18, let me caddie for him and taught me how to play. I learned a lot by just watching Teddy. Only two men I was to see later compared to Teddy as a ball-striker: Ben Hogan, and Tommy Bolt in his prime. Teddy was good with every club in the bag, and he hit it flush every time. Only Hogan controlled the really small area through impact as well.
In the early 1950s, through Teddy, I got to meet the great Jackie Robinson. When the Brooklyn Dodgers came through a town where Teddy and I were, we always got together. When you talk about pioneers, he’s at the top. After Jackie passed away and many years had passed, I ran into Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife. She gave me a chilly reception, which surprised me. Come to find out, she thought that back before I got married, when I was a high-stepper and chased girls, I had led Jackie astray. Rachel was off the mark on that, but how could I bring up a subject like that with her? I had to let it go, but it made me sad that Rachel got the wrong impression.
Charlie Sifford was a complicated man. I don’t think he really liked anybody—black, white or brown. He was bitter that Teddy Rhodes was known as the best black golfer ever, and he spoke badly about him and other people behind their backs. He belittled the UGA tour, would show up but refuse to play because the prize money was “crumbs.” Just because you’re persecuted doesn’t mean you’re a great guy. But there’s no questioning Charlie’s skill with a golf club, his toughness or his courage. One time at a tournament, Charlie was being harassed over a period of days by a group of so-called respectable people in a city I won’t name. He confronted the whole bunch of them, just Charlie against the racists. “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to bring the Black Panthers out here, and we’ll burn this f------ place to the ground.” Charlie absolutely meant it, and they believed him. The harassment stopped.
You’ve probably never heard of Cliff Harrington. He was black and one of the most promising golfers I ever saw, of any race. In the 1960s, he was a sergeant in the Army, and in his spare time he won a lot of local tournaments in the mid-South. He was an All-Army champion and became the pro at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. He had it all—power, finesse, touch, accuracy—and he was a fearless competitor. A lot of us begged Cliff to leave the Army and give the PGA Tour a try. But Cliff, like me, shied away. In 1965, during his second tour in Vietnam, Cliff was killed in combat. After I joined the tour and had success, I often thought of Cliff and what he could have been. You’ve heard of me, Calvin Peete, Charlie Sifford, Teddy Rhodes, James Black and other black players. But Cliff could have been right there with us, maybe even better.
We went to the Players Championship this year, and the young players were so nice to Sharon and me, coming up to us and greeting us and thanking me for my contributions to the game. But I couldn’t help but notice how the world has changed. Invariably, I had spoken with the players’ parents beforehand, and the youngsters approached me only after being tipped off as to who that old guy was. It’s understandable—I retired from competitive golf before many of them were born—but history and the game’s heritage seem to be passing them by. They’re so busy, and there’s so much money around, they’re very occupied with what’s going on right now. If I could wish for one thing, it’s that the pace of the young players’ lives and size of their pocketbooks not dampen their appreciation for history.
My first look at Tiger Woods, he was 14 and kind of an ordinary, enthusiastic junior golfer. He was good for his age and talented, but far from being a sure thing. I saw him next when he was 18, and it was pretty clear he was going to be really good. He had so much desire, and his power and fundamentals were tremendous. But even then, he didn’t have the whole package. His sand game in particular wasn’t very good. He positioned his ball too far back in his stance, dug too much and hit too close to the ball. When he played in the 1997 Masters, he was at a different level.
It’s good to help young people along, give them a boost when you can. There were these two kids, Wesley and George Bryan, who did a really good trick-shot show but needed some exposure and a way to make some cash. I got them some paying gigs at Darius Rucker’s charity tournament, and Chris Tucker’s, too. Wesley especially is a heck of a player, and next thing I know, he made it to the PGA Tour. He won the Heritage Classic. Knowing you’re part of a successful person’s background gives a lot of satisfaction.
I still have a hard time believing I got to where I am. I’m the youngest of 10 children. My father joined the Army during World War II—he didn’t have to go—because he couldn’t find work and needed the money. He was killed in Europe when I was 9. My mother died three months later of natural causes—my sister said it was because of a broken heart. That left a house full of children during the Great Depression with no means of support. My Aunt Sarah came by one day when I was 11 and saw I was neglected. She took me—just me, none of the others—with her to Wichita Falls, then out to Los Angeles.
Before my aunt rescued me, I had an older brother, Raymond, who did his best to look out for me. He was a kid himself and could be pretty mean when we were at home, but he tolerated me following him to school and to the golf course to caddie. He defended me against bullies who tried to take my money. Raymond has been gone for a while now, but I always was fond of him, because in those early years it seemed like he was the only person who cared.
My aunt was an incredible person. She gave me love and discipline, didn’t let me get too far out of line. Her resources were limited, but she carried herself with great dignity, communicated well with people and taught me right from wrong. I was on my own after about age 16, but she got me to a point where I could care for myself. I made money caddieing around Los Angeles and started playing a little. I didn’t play 18 holes until I was 16.
Before I turned pro, I made my living hustling, mostly around Dallas. I once shot 38 playing on one leg. Another time I shot 41 playing on my knees. I won matches playing cross-handed. The match conditions often were unusual. One day it was 95 degrees and humid, and in addition to giving strokes, I had to play wearing a heavy rainsuit. I damn near passed out. Gambling was very big in Texas—that’s where Dan Jenkins got all the ideas for his books. The hustling days came to a peak when I hit the road with Titanic Thompson, the famous gambler. I’m not real proud of everything that happened traveling with Ti because some of the ruses were a little sneaky. But it was an interesting life, and it trained me to handle pressure. Believe it or not, it was honest, for the most part.
There was money to be made everywhere, and we traveled all over the country. But the big money was mainly in Texas and Oklahoma. There was a lot of oil money around and a lot of bank presidents. Ti and I would go into the clubs with me posing as Ti’s caddie. Ti’s pattern was to lose a little for a day or two. Then he’d say, “I’m not having much luck playing by myself. Tell you what, how about I take my caddie as my partner, and raise the stakes?” The oil men assumed I barely even played golf and would take him up on it. And then Ti and I would just clean up. I’m talking serious money, mid-five figures back when that kind of dough meant something. Ti was always very fair with me. If he made $50,000, my cut might be $15,000, very fair considering he set everything up and all I had to do was play golf. He paid all expenses, too. He was a great business partner and a good friend.
Ti was so smart. He didn’t always present me as his caddie. A few times, Ti contacted the course superintendents in advance and got me a job on the maintenance crew. He’d come in a short time later, point out that he didn’t know anybody at the club—which was true—and volunteer to take “the guy driving the tractor”—me—as his partner. We’d make a lot of money, I’d leave the greenkeeping job, and we’d move on.
The games were shady only to the extent that we didn’t always volunteer my identity and that I was a very good player. I don’t believe we owed the oil men or bank presidents that because they’d bring out their best local hotshots fully intending to clean Ti out. For all we knew, the hotshots were better than me. But we kind of doubted it—otherwise, we would have heard of them. The games were honest, straight-up golf. I just outplayed people, and they paid off. We almost always left town on good terms with the locals.
There was an exception. One time in Arkansas, Ti brought me in to play against some crack amateurs there. Ti had introduced me as “Bob.” My full name is Robert Lee Elder. We had been there about a week and were getting set to pour it on when a well-known hustler named Dandy Dick Martin shows up. We knew Dick well from hanging around Tenison Park in Dallas. Lee Trevino has a million stories about Dick. When Dick spotted me, he said, “Hey, Lee Elder’s here. Is he still messing around with Ti?” Our cover was blown. We had only three holes left to play when the men started giving us threatening looks. We’d already beaten them out of a small fortune. Ti took me aside. “When we get to the 17th tee, I want you to skedaddle out of here,” he whispered. “Go back to our hotel, but don’t go to the room. Leave a message at the desk for me and nobody else, telling me where you’ll be. Then get the hell out of there.” An hour or two later, Ti called me at the diner where I’d gone to hang out. He’d managed to talk his way out of the club, but knowing the men were probably going to follow him, parked his Cadillac and picked me up in a cab. Only after Ti decided things had quieted down did we go pick up the car and get out of town.
Watching the tour event at Detroit Golf Club this year brought to mind the hustle Ti pulled off there. It was late fall and already very cold, and Ti and some members were in the grill, figuring games they could play without having to actually play 18 holes. Ti, who was a good player and long hitter, said, “I’ve been feeling nice and strong lately. I’ll bet you $25,000 I can drive a ball 500 yards.” The men at the table called him on it immediately. They plunked down their $25,000, and Ti, after placing the $50,000 in an attache case, called in the superintendent, who for a fee was to guard the money with his life. “OK, let’s go,” one of the members said. “Wait a minute,” Ti said. “You didn’t stipulate I had to do it today. I’m going to wait a while.” A few days later, a winter storm came in and Lake Michigan froze over. You can guess the rest. Ti teed a ball on the shore of the lake and hit an ordinary drive that hit the ice and for all I know, is still going. The members howled, but Ti collected the $25,000.
I sensed that if I kept on in that life, I’d eventually get hurt. There was always a concern we’d get robbed, or that we’d encounter the wrong kind of disgruntled gamblers. It worried me that Ti kept a gun strapped to the calf of his right leg at all times. There was a rumor, which I believed, that he’d once used a hammer to beat to death a man who’d cheated him in New York. So I moved on. It was hard because I went from making a lot of money with Ti to much less off by myself.
The best way to learn golf is to choose one department of the game and get good at it before branching out. It can be any part—I suggest pitching with a sand wedge—but don’t try to swallow the whole game at once. If you try to learn driving, sand play, fairway woods and putting at the same time, the game will eat you up. You’ll get frustrated and might quit. Build up confidence in that one area, and then let it spread out to the other parts.
I’m strictly a scramble player now. They don’t use my tee shots much, but I’m still good with the wedges, and a tremendous putter. I’m fantastic in charity tournaments, won four of them last year alone. I haven’t played the last few months. I bruised my ACL and it’s slow to heal, so I’m getting around on a scooter. But I’ll be back. You’ll want me on your team.—with Guy Yocom