Lee Elder, who broke down racial barriers as the first Black golfer to play in the Masters and paved the way for Tiger Woods and others to follow, has died at the age of 87.
The PGA Tour announced Elder’s death, which was first reported Monday by Debert Cook of African American Golfers Digest. No cause was given, but the tour confirmed Elder’s death with his family.
He had been in poor health and wore an oxygen tube beneath his nose when he appeared at the opening of the Masters in April. The tour said he died early Sunday in Escondido, California.
“Lee was a good player, but most important, a good man who was very well respected by countless people,” Jack Nicklaus wrote on his Twitter account. “The game of golf lost a hero in Lee Elder.”
A Texan who developed his game during segregated times while caddying, Elder made history in 1975 at Augusta National, which had held an all-white tournament until he received an invitation after winning the Monsanto Open the previous year.
Elder missed the cut at his first Masters but forever stamped himself as a groundbreaking figure in a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance.
Twenty-two years later, Woods became the first Black golfer to capture the green jacket, launching one of the greatest careers in golf history.
“Lee Elder was a pioneer, and in so many ways,” Nicklaus said. “Yes, he was the first black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament, but that simply underlined the hard work Lee put in to further the cause of everyone who has a dream to play on the PGA Tour and perhaps thinks there were too many barriers before them.”
This past April, in the wake of social justice protests that roiled the nation, the Masters honored Elder by having him join Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial opening tee shots.
Elder’s poor health prevented him from taking a swing, but he held up his driver proudly at the first tee, clearly moved by the moment.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said.
“That morning, you could see the joy in Lee’s face,” Nicklaus said Monday. “Gary Player and I were honored to enjoy that moment with him.”
Fred Ridley, chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, called Elder “a true pioneer in the game of golf.”
“Lee was an inspiration to so many young men and women of color not only through his play, but also through his commitment to education and community,” Ridley said in a statement. “Lee will always be a part of the history of the Masters Tournament. His presence will be sorely missed, but his legacy will continue to be celebrated.”