To honor Lee Elder is to also celebrate the world he helped spawn

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PEBBLE BEACH — What do Chris Tucker, Darius Rucker, Jim Nantz, and Gary Player have in common? They each had steak and scallops for dinner Wednesday night at the Inn at Spanish Bay and stood for the ovation when Lee Elder received the Bob Jones Award. Which is the only USGA honor harder to win than the U.S. Open, especially so in the case of Elder.

Nantz, whose sonorous boom immediately halted progress on a couple hundred salads, said Elder’s life ought to be a movie. One of ten children, orphaned when he was 9 years old, caddied only for money then improbably developed the skill to compete and win on the PGA Tour, then despite countless death threats along the way, became the first black golfer to play in the Masters, which he did in 1975. Nantz witnessed a moment in 1997 which the movie directors could make the climax if they so chose: Elder, bleary after driving north at top speed from a corporate golf obligation in Florida, standing by the putting green at Augusta National before the final round, taking Tiger Woods by the arm to tell him, “go take care of business.”

“Your life will have meaning for years and centuries to come,” said Nantz to Elder, now 84.

Gary Player’s voice is just as recognizable. The way his teeth bite every syllable in perfect enunciation, how the sentences build with speed and energy the longer they go on just like the man himself. Unjustly regarded early in his career as an emblem of apartheid South Africa, he regularly competed under the protection of police escorts who still couldn’t block the ice thrown at his eyes.

“But compared to Lee Elder, what I went through was Mickey Mouse,” said Player, whose bond with Elder was forged when he invited him to play a series of tournaments in Africa. “For the first time ever, there were young black children coming to the golf course not to caddie, but to watch Lee, and you should’ve seen the looks on their faces,” Player said. The magnitude of the inspiration he provided, unknowable.

Lee Elder
Augusta National

Elder in the 1975 Masters.

Elder’s voice is neither smooth nor famous. A survivor of quadruple bypass surgery, it’s also a miracle that he can see his notes considering the severity of the vision problems he’s battled (his doctors were in attendance, whom he thanked). Yet Elder’s speech is more powerful for being halting. In his struggle to find the right words—which he does—a room of mostly fortunate people wearing blazers and evening dresses having berry crumble pie can begin to sense the struggle of his life. Professional golf is hard enough. On top of it, imagine being forced to change your shoes in the parking lot. Bigoted, hateful fans kicking your ball into the rough. Whenever the pro golf circuit passed near a city where the Dodgers were playing, Elder would invite Jackie Robinson to dinner or at least go watch the game, and find more strength to keep going.

Elder won eight times on the PGA Tour, but people best remember a second-place finish in his 1967 rookie year. Jack Nicklaus made a 30-footer on the final hole in regulation of the American Golf Classic to tie, then sank several bombs more to eventually defeat Elder in a playoff that lasted five holes. Asked how long the putts were, Nicklaus joked it’d be better to rely on his friend Elder to supply the facts. “He remembers.”

Elder never saw Bob Jones play, “though I read about him a great deal.” Elder said he would keep the bronze statue of the knickered Georgian—the highest honor given by the USGA, recognizing those whose sportsmanship and character exemplify the ideals of the game—on the mantle in his bedroom.

Personally, I never saw Elder play, and only know about him from what I’ve read. But if I think back over just the last year, it’s remarkable how many golf stories I’ve pursued could be connected to him and Pebble Beach.

Last fall, I wrote about Jimmie James, an African-American who recently played all of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Courses within a calendar year by making friends and getting invitations along the way. “Forty years ago, there’s no way I could’ve played all these courses,” James said. “There were people who warned, last year, that there would be some courses I couldn’t get on, but I felt totally welcomed and respected everywhere I went.”

At the Masters, we brought Valentino Dixon, a victim of a racially biased court system 27 years ago, to Augusta National as a credentialed illustrator to celebrate his wrongful murder conviction being overturned. While in prison, Dixon’s other course of artistic fascination was Pebble Beach, where he’ll be speaking about the core value of perseverance at a PGA Tour Champions event this coming fall, the Pure Insurance Championship Impacting The First Tee.

In our April issue, I enlisted Stephen Malbon to interview another unlikely lover of golf, the rapper ScHoolboy Q, who grew up on the streets of Compton. I finally got to meet “Q” this week at a party heavy with golf industry glamour on 17-Mile Drive, where he was no doubt the unofficial guest of honor. He’d attended a practice round at the U.S. Open that day, and thinks the manner by which golfers shake hands on the 18th green is kind of dorky, and demonstrated for me some cooler, “more drip” alternatives.

James, Dixon, ScHoolboy, and of course, Tiger Woods, who aims this week to rekindle some of the magic from the greatest performance in the history of golf, his 2000 U.S. Open win at Pebble by 15 shots. Perhaps none of these stories would’ve come true if not for Lee Elder. A great man who deserved every moment of a very special evening last night.

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