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Lee Elder, the 1st Black golfer to play at the Masters, has died at age 87

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former professional golfer Lee Elder died yesterday. He was 87. Elder began playing the game in the years when a Caucasian-only clause barred Black players from competing on the pro tour. But after years of competing in United Golfers Association - the equivalent of baseball's Negro Leagues - Elder became the first African American golfer to play at the Masters tournament in 1975. For more on Elder's life and remarkable career, let's bring in Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post.

Good to have you here.

BARRY SVRLUGA: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Lee Elder is credited as being the one who broke the color barrier in professional golf when he played at the Masters. Tiger Woods was the first African American to win the Masters, and Elder was one of the people he credited. Talk about what Elder did for the Black golfers who came after him.

SVRLUGA: Well, that breaking through was very much like Jackie Robinson in Major League Baseball. The Masters is such a tournament that is steeped in tradition, and a lot of that tradition is a racist tradition. The organizing club is the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia. It was an all-white club until very recently. And its rules were set up to exclude Black players, even as they became more integrated on the PGA Tour. They did not change their rules excluding Blacks until 1972. Only then did they say that anyone who won on the PGA Tour would be invited to the Masters. Lee Elder did that in 1974, and therefore made history in 1975, playing the first Masters by a Black man.

SHAPIRO: And when he did that, he received death threats. He had to rent two homes to be safe. What did he say about the challenges he faced outside of the golf course?

SVRLUGA: You know, it's interesting. He was friends with Robinson. And Robinson advised him, look, don't make trouble. It's very easy to get into trouble. It's very hard to get out of it. At that time, Lee Elder had to kind of stand and take it. He took death threats. He went - during his time on tour, he often would book hotels in the South, and despite there being a reservation, was told he had to stay elsewhere. So many golf clubs in those days were exclusionary. He would hear catcalls from the galleries - racist catcalls - and he just had to wear it and hope that there would be a time when those things would pass.

SHAPIRO: He also ran a golf course here in Washington, D.C., where Black golfers could play and build their skills. How is he remembered here in the region?

SVRLUGA: Really fondly. Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington, D.C., exists to this day. He managed it in the late '70s and early '80s, really with an eye on bringing golf into the Black community. He brought celebrities here from basketball star Bill Russell to boxing's Joe Louis. He hosted Bob Hope at Langston golf club - or Golf Course. He really kind of lent his name and lent his work to public golf in a historically Black community. That course has a really strong place in the African American community in Washington, D.C., to this day.

SHAPIRO: When Elder began to play, he declined sponsorship from other people, wanting to pay the entrance fees himself. Just briefly, can you explain why?

SVRLUGA: Yes. He didn't want - he wanted his own elbow grease to put himself on tour. He didn't want to be paying his - a portion of his winnings to any white person who aided him along the way. He was a self-made person, an orphan and a hustler, and he took that to the beginning and all through his career.

SHAPIRO: Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post on the life of professional golfer Lee Elder, who has died at the age of 87.

Thank you so much.

SVRLUGA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
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