Local tributes paid to golf trailblazer Lee Elder
Professional golfer Kim Swan never met Lee Elder, even when he visited Bermuda in 2007, but he appreciates the struggles he faced and barriers he knocked down as the first Black player at the Masters in 1975.
Certainly Swan was inspired by Elder’s accomplished in a segregated sport in the 1970s when his own golf game was still developing. Elder died on the weekend at the age of 87.
“I didn’t get to know him but I played in his tournament, the Capital City Open,” Swan recalled. “He and his wife had the concession at Langston Golf Club in Washington DC and they used to have a professional event there that used to be a part of the old UGA Tour.
“It was the Black tour and I played in a couple of events on it when Walter King took me to play in it, though I didn’t get the chance to meet him at the time.
Despite never crossing paths with the pioneering golfer, Swan underlined the impact that Elder had on him indirectly, as he charted his own course.
“I never did have the honour of meeting him, but his life impacted mine in many ways because when he was the first Black to play in the Masters, three years later I was the first Black to play in the top amateur tournament the week before the Masters,” Swan said.
Swan, a Progressive Labour Party MP and former PGA European Tour player and chairman of Bermuda Government Golf Courses, highlighted Elder’s role in knocking down barriers during segregated times in golf.
Elder made history at the Augusta National as the first Black player in a tournament which had been all-White until he received an invitation to play in it after winning the Monsanto Open the year before.
It didn’t matter that he missed the cut at his first Masters, Elder was forever known as a groundbreaking figure in a sport that had never been known for racial tolerance.
“I am saddened by the passing of Lee Elder, while immensely appreciative for his life’s journey,” Swan stated.
“The death of Lee Elder causes the world to focus on his celebrated drive up Magnolia Drive to participate in the 1975 Masters at Augusta National after winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida,” said Swan, who lamented the belated recognition that Elder received.
“Unfortunately, it took the last year of his life, nearly 50 years since that historic milestone amid continued racial turmoil, to recognise Lee Elder at the Masters. We cannot celebrate Lee Elder without recognising the treacherous legacy of the ‘Caucasian Only Rule’ which started the year he was born in 1934 ‒ the same year the Masters Tournament commenced.
“The real tragedy was that the Masters continued with its racist policy of excluding Blacks for another 14 years after the PGA of America ended the Caucasian Only Rule in 1961. We extend heartfelt condolences to his family and friends. May he rest In peace,” said Swan.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sammons, Professor of History at New York University and Chief Historical Consultant for Bermuda Government Golf Courses as well as The Bermuda PGA, also spoke of Elder’s success in knocking down barriers.
“Lee Elder was a heroic trailblazer who paved the way for others on the PGA Tour,” Dr Sammons said.
“Unfortunately, during his younger years he was not able to compete as an equal against the touring pros of the PGA of America but was forced to ply his trade on the far less lucrative and prestigious, predominantly black United Golfers Association tour.
“We share a birth date of July 14 but it is noteworthy that he was 41 years old when he won the Monsanto Open and played in the 1975 Masters Tournament. Thankfully he lived to receive fitting accolades shortly before passing,” Sammons stated.
Elder visited Bermuda for the PGA Grand Slam in 2007 and spoke highly of a then 22 year old Daniel Augustus, a Bermuda professional plying his trade in tournaments overseas.
“Dr [Ewart] Brown actually brought him here,” Swan recalled of elder’s visit. “In 1975 was when I was emerging and to see his picture on Golf World after he played in the Masters was an inspiration for a young fella.”
Elder played in all four major golf championships, tying for eleventh at both the 1974 PGA Championship and the 1979 US Open. His best finish at the Masters was a tie for seventeenth in the 1979 event.
“You couldn’t help but be inspired by Lee Elder,” Swan said. “When I was coming through Lee Elder was already on the Tour and I didn't get a chance to meet him like I did Calvin Peets and Jim Thorpe who is a family friend now.”
A friend is certainly what Lee Elder was to Ewart Brown, the former Premier of Bermuda, who stated: “Lee Elder was a friend. From the time he came to Bermuda for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in 2007, he always remembered the people of Bermuda in our conversations.
“He was much larger than the first Black golfer to play in the Masters. We join his family in celebrating his memory.”
While playing in the PGA Grand Slam of Golf Pro-Am at Mid Ocean in 2007, Elder was asked his impressions of Bermuda. "This is next to heaven,“ he replied.
“So far I have been all around the Island and I think it's wonderful. Every place that I have gone and visited, the red carpet has been turned out for me."