The golf world lost an icon on Sunday, a figure who will forever have his name etched into sports history. And I lost a friend, a man I have known since I was an 18-year-old girl playing in United Golf Association events around the country with other men and women, boys and girls, pros and amateurs of color who wanted nothing more than to compete in the game we all loved.
Lee Elder called me the week before Thanksgiving while I was in Naples for the CME Group Tour Championship. As always, he was positive and upbeat. He wanted to talk about a potential project he was putting together for us in Boston the week of the upcoming U.S. Open. At age 87, he rarely looked back. He was always excited about the next idea, the next adventure, the next big thing. For someone who could no longer walk on his own, Lee remained the kind of person who was always moving forward.
I told him that I would get back to him once I got home to Ohio. But I never got the chance. This past Sunday my phone lit up with messages and calls. Lee had left us.
When I was young, I viewed him as an uncle. He wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of Black men who loved golf and kept their eye out for a teenager trying to make her way in the game. Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown, George Johnson: they were always asking me how I was doing; asking about my game; giving me tips about where to eat, where to stay, and what to avoid on the road. The UGA was created in the mid-1920s as a tour for all Black golfers who could not find competitive outlets because of segregation. Ted Rhodes and Bill Spiller were early members.
At an event in Miami, I met Lee for the first time. He threw his head back and smiled, greeting me like I was a long, lost relative. As an 18-year-old on the road trying to navigate my way through tournament golf, there was comfort in the friendship of an older man. We played a practice round together that week and he could not have been more complimentary.
Everything about Lee was polished, then and to the end. While men like Charlie were also kind and warm and funny, especially around me, they also had a hardness about them. But they had to be that way. The world was cruel, and they had to develop an edge to survive. Lee had the gift of being just as hard without ever showing it. He always looked like he’d never met a stranger.
And, oh, the stories he could tell. When he was a young man, Lee played crosshanded, learning the game, as many did, in the caddie yards of public courses around Dallas. For a period of time, when he was barely more than a child, he traveled with famed hustler Titanic Thompson. Lee would pose as Titanic’s driver or his porter, and the hustle was on. On one occasion, Titanic sent Lee to a golf course in Georgia a couple of weeks ahead. Titanic had gotten Lee a job on the maintenance crew where Lee’s job was to learn the course inside and out. Then Titanic, who was already known throughout the country, showed up. When he had trouble getting a game, the big man would point to Lee on a tracker in the distance and say, “Alright boys, I’ll take that little fellow on the tractor out there and play the two best you’ve got.” They won a lot of money doing that sort of thing. And Lee told a lot of stories about it over the years. He would laugh and we would laugh with him.
He and I both won the UGA National Championship in 1966. The next year, 1967, we both qualified for our respective tours. Lee played the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions from 1968 until his retirement in 2005. In 1974, he won the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida, which earned him an invitation to the 1975 Masters. He was the event’s first Black player. To hear him talk about it – to hear the stories of the Black servers and caddies who came out to watch him tee off that Thursday in April – those are memories I will cherish forever.
I was so honored to be asked to join in the celebration this past April when Augusta National and the Masters honored Lee on the first tee prior to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hitting the ceremonial first tee shots. Like many people, I was stunned by Lee’s frail appearance. I knew his health wasn’t great – he had been a diabetic for years – but I did not know that he needed oxygen and was unable to stand on his own. But once he spoke, he was the same old Lee: happy and positive and ready to charge into the day.
He was proud of a lot of things in his life. But the thing that made him happiest was the progress the game has made in the years since he and I met in Miami. He broke barriers that many people today can’t imagine existed. When I look at all the girls from all different races and backgrounds at our LPGA*USGA Girls’ Golf clinics, I know they are there because of pioneers like Lee Elder.
That day in Augusta, the last time I saw him face to face, he was moved by the fact that Augusta National Golf Club, the place where people like Charlie Sifford weren’t allowed to play, had helped create the women’s golf program at Paine College, an Historical Black College in Augusta, and endowed a golf scholarship in the name of Lee Elder.
That meant more to him than any tournament win. He knew that the golfers who went to school on the Lee Elder Scholarship would keep the game moving. Always forward. Just like Lee.