Forty years ago, Lee Elder became the first black man to play in one of golf’s most revered tournaments — the Masters. It was one of sport’s last remaining race barriers to fall.
Elder qualified for the Masters by winning the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida. It had extra significance given that Elder had vowed never to play in the tournament again after being denied entry to the clubhouse on a previous playing visit. Here he celebrates holing the winning putt in a playoff, after which he needed a police escort back to the clubhouse.
Elder received threats in the lead-up to the 1975 tournament and rented two houses for the week in order to stay safe. After saying a prayer in the clubhouse he emerged to walk to the first tee, being clapped all the way. “The applause was the relieving factor for me — it really helped me to relax,” he told CNN.
Despite his nerves, Elder’s drive off the first tee landed right in the middle of the fairway. “How I accomplished that I do not know,” he said. Elder received a standing ovation on nearly every tee and green during that first round.
Elder challenged the barriers of race for most of his career. He accepted an invitation from nine-time major champion Gary Player to compete in a tournament in apartheid South Africa four years before his Masters appearance.
Elder missed the cut in his first Masters but returned five more times, finishing tied for 17th in 1979. Reflecting on that opening round, he said: “There was definitely a sense of pride because you want to be the first in a situation such as that — to make history. That’s what I felt I had done. It was a very proud moment for me.”
Elder paved the way for future generations: Tiger Woods became the first black man to win the Masters in 1997. Elder had seen Woods play on his debut at Augusta in 1995 and confidently predicted he would win the tournament.
Calvin Peete surpassed Elder’s four PGA Tour wins by notching up 12 victories, plus four top-10 finishes in major tournaments. Like Elder, Peete played in the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
In 1990, Ron Townsend became the first Africa-American member at Augusta National. The TV executive is pictured left with four-time Masters winner Arnold Palmer in 2014.
In 2004, Charlie Sifford became the first African American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame. He had been the PGA Tour’s first black player, winning two tournaments in the late 1960s. Sifford died in February 2015, aged 92. The PGA of America ended its “Caucasian-only” rule in 1961.
In 1963, Althea Gibson became the first black woman to play on the LPGA Tour but was unable to repeat the success she enjoyed on the tennis court.
In 2011, Joseph Bramlett became the first golfer of African-American descent to play on the PGA Tour since his fellow Stanford University alumnus Woods. He held his card for just one season and played on the second-tier U.S. tour from 2012-13.
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