Of the few iconic African-American professional golfers, Lee Elder arguably remains the one who left the most indelible mark on the sport.
Thirty-seven years ago today Elder became the first black golfer ever to play in the Masters.
He broke down racial barriers and paved the way for an entire generation of black golfers, most notably setting the stage for Tiger Woods‘ success at golf’s top US tournament.
In a 2010 interview, Elder, now 76, recalled the details of that day in April 1975.
He told Golfweek:
My tee time was 11:15, with Gene Littler. It had been misting rain early in the morning. When I exited through the clubhouse door, the sun broke through. The headlines of the paper the next day said, “Elder brought sunshine to a most dismal day.” I shot 74. I bogeyed the last two holes. I had a decent round going. The next day, I was paired with Miller Barber. I didn’t play too well. I wasn’t used to all the slopes on the greens. I had a lot of three-putts and shot 78. All in all, I really enjoyed it, even though it was tough. I was fortunate to be the person to kick the last door down of enforced segregation. It was my contribution to society.
During Elder’s playing days in the 1970s, the Detroit native often competed against the game’s top golfers including Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. He also emerged as an international ambassador for the game and a symbol of integration in the 1960s and 1970s.
At the time, baseball had its Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. Tennis had its classy, Wimbledon winning champ Arthur Ashe. In golf, Elder was the torchbearer.
In his career, he had won four times on the PGA Tour and eight times on the Champions Tour. From 1975 to 1981, he played in six Masters. His best finish was in 1979 where he tied for 17th place.
Before his breakthrough at the Masters, he endured death threats and bags of hate mail just like Aaron had experienced leading up to him breaking Babe Ruth’s home-run record.
Though it’s hard to imagine now, Elder’s Masters debut was a watershed moment for black achievement in sports. Until then, golf was largely regarded as white man’s game, in which blacks’ main contribution was limited to caddying and as country club waitstaff.
Augusta National Golf Club, in particular, represented the strictly drawn racial codes of the old South. For some perspective, it’s 2012 and the golf club still doesn’t allow women members.
Later in his career, Elder also was instrumental in getting the PGA of America to repeal the “Caucasian clause” that was used until 1960 to limit the access of African-American golfers to the biggest professional events.
These days, many golf courses reflect the country’s diverse population, with African-American participation emerging as a more regular occurrence.
Woods’ popularity had a lot to do with changing the complexion of the sport. But Elder set the ball rolling on the green.
Brett Johnson is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based writer and the founder of the music and culture blog VeryArtistical.com.