A quiet man, easygoing but understandably guarded, Lee Elder has always preferred a soft answer—or even none at all—to the prospect of a shouting match with a bigot. Nobody would mistake him for Jackie Robinson or, for that matter, Charlie Sifford, the glowering, cigar-chomping golf pro who was the first black on the PGA tour. But when the 40-year-old Elder tees up next week at the Augusta National Golf Club, he will be the first black ever to enter the Masters tournament, breaking the most symbolic racial barrier in golf. Elder is looking forward to it, with joy—and memories that rankle. Since he started on the tour in 1968, the Masters has been his goal and his albatross. Frustrated repeatedly in his attempts to qualify for the tournament, despite his emergence as one of the steadiest money winners in the game, he looked upon his exclusion with resentment. “I didn’t feel it was a racial thing,” he says, “but they were always changing the qualifications from one year to the next. You never knew what it would take to qualify.”
Now, however, any victory on the pro tour guarantees a golfer a spot at Augusta, and last spring Elder won his first tournament. His troubles, however, did not cease. Earlier this year, bedeviled by distractions, including a sudden onslaught of public attention, he was eliminated from four consecutive tournaments and showed signs of losing his competitive edge. “He says his concentration is shot, and you can see it,” explained his wife, Rose, a forceful, protective woman who doubles as her husband’s business manager. “They say this is what a professional has to go through, but he’s still a human being, not a robot.”
The remarkable thing, in fact, is Elder’s presence on the tour in the first place. Orphaned before his teens, he learned golf as a caddy in Dallas, often sneaking back on the course just before nightfall to play a few furtive holes. He was 16 before he played a regulation 18 holes, and was actually playing tournament golf before anyone bothered to correct his primitive cross-handed grip. Even so, Elder eked out a living as a public links hustler and later as a touring pro on the impecunious black professional circuit. Purses were barely enough to keep body and soul together, and the only way to survive was to win. Elder did, taking 21 of 23 events during one blazing hot streak, but still couldn’t find anyone willing to bankroll him on the big-money PGA tour. Finally he and Rose scraped together $6,500 to pay their own way.
Joining the tour as a 33-year-old rookie, Elder promptly broke a PGA record by finishing in the money in his first nine events. He forced Jack Nicklaus into a dramatic sudden-death playoff in one tournament and won nearly $32,000 for the year. Steadily improving (he won nearly $72,000 last year), Elder has only once failed to finish among the tour’s top 60 money winners. Still, each of the half dozen or so black golfers on the tour had experienced racism, and Elder’s success didn’t buy him immunity. “Once in the Memphis Classic some people threw my ball in the road,” he recalls. “I was heckled the rest of the day, and I had to have a police escort. I got phone calls that night—’Nigger, you better not win this tournament’—that sort of thing.” Though such abuse is now past, Elder remembers and wonders. “I think that if I were just another struggling golfer on the tour I’d still be getting that kind of treatment.”
Feeding his suspicions, presumably, are the difficulties he has had in obtaining lucrative commercial endorsements, and his inability to land the kind of coveted country club affiliation that helps assure a golfer security. Whereas white professionals are routinely attached to clubs that seek the prestige of a man on the tour, Elder says he has never been asked. And though Mrs. Elder was in touch with several major national companies as soon as her husband qualified for the Masters, she still doesn’t have the contracts she’s angling for. Whatever happens, she vows, she won’t allow anyone to take advantage of Lee. “One company told me, ‘We’d like to have Lee, but we can’t pay the kind of money you want,’ ” she says. “I said, ‘Well, then you can’t afford to have him.’ ”
Shuttling between their Washington, D.C. home and her husband’s tournament appearances, Mrs. Elder has been trying to shield Lee from pre-Masters pressure. “Without Rose, it would be a lost cause,” admits Elder. “When she’s around, I know she can take care of everything, and I can concentrate on playing golf. When she goes, there goes my golf.” Mrs. Elder, a former model and executive secretary, is determined to do all she can. “We have a team going,” she says. “This is the biggest thing I could do for Lee’s career, and I felt his career was 100 times more important than anything I could have been doing.” If other athletes’ wives are sometimes blasé about their husbands’ achievements, Mrs. Elder is not. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says, “Lee’s one of the greatest athletes of all time, both because of what he’s accomplished and what he had to go through to do it. Nobody made it easy for him. Lee did it all by himself.”