Black golf fans mourn Lee Elder’s death as Tiger Woods says injuries will limit his play

Andy Graham was stung by the news that one of golf’s trailblazers, Lee Elder, had died Sunday at 87. Then, Monday afternoon, Tiger Woods said in an interview that he would not compete any longer as a full-time player on the PGA Tour because of injuries from a car crash.

“Two pieces of news that, as a Black golfer and fan of the sport, is hard to take,” said Graham, 68, of Dallas, Elder’s hometown. “I was inspired to play golf by Lee Elder. I literally began playing golf because of him. And Tiger, well, when I played so badly that I thought about giving up the game, he inspired me to keep going. So, for me, these two are linked.” 

Elder and Woods are inextricably connected for countless Black golfers and fans of the game, but for different reasons — Elder for being the first Black person to play at the famed Augusta National in the 1975 Masters, enduring death threats along the way, and Woods for emerging as perhaps the greatest player in history, inspiring an entire generation of new Black golfers.

“It’s easy to think of one of them and also think of the other,” Graham said, “because Lee Elder opened the door and Tiger stepped through it.” 

Lee Elder talks to Tiger Woods before the final round of the 1997 Masters. Augusta National / Getty Images

Elder earned his tour card in 1968 — seven years after the PGA’s Caucasian-only rule was lifted. His perseverance, Woods has said, not only cleared a path for him to display his unique talent but also proved that Black golfers could play on the highest level. He won four times on the tour and eight more times on the PGA Seniors Tour, now called the PGA Champions Tour.

And he did much of it even as racial slurs were hurled at him and he got death threats from white people who did not want the sport to be integrated. He also often had to change clothes in his car, because, as a Black man, he was not allowed in segregated clubhouses. But he was undeterred, driven by his passion for the game he picked up as a caddie in his youth. 

It was a monumental occasion when Elder was named one of the ceremonial starters for the Masters Tournament in April.

“Lee Elder still hadn’t got enough credit as an icon breaking down the color barrier in a sport that was exclusive of Black people,” said avid golfer Robert Diggs, a lawyer in Atlanta. “But he was finally getting the recognition he deserved. So it’s unfortunate he passed away now.

“And then you throw in Tiger not being able to play often, and it’s just sad,” he said. 

If Elder took Black golf to one level, Woods, 45, took it into the stratosphere, earning 15 major championships and a historic 82 career wins, more than any other male player. He posted a video last week on social media taking swings for the first time since his serious car accident in February, when he suffered multiple open fractures along his right leg, as well as damage to the ankle and trauma to the leg’s muscle and soft tissue.

In an interview Monday with Golf Digest, Woods said: “I think something that is realistic is playing the tour one day, never full time, ever again, but pick and choose a few events a year and you play around that. You practice around that, and you gear yourself up for that. And you play. I think that’s how I’m going to have to play it from now on.

“It’s an unfortunate reality, but it’s my reality. And I understand it, and I accept it,” he said.

It is not as easy for all fans to accept, however. Woods was a one-man television ratings bonanza whose dynamic play revolutionized the game and drew new fans to the sport. 

“I’m sure his body can’t take it anymore,” Diggs said. “It just can’t. Sounds like that was a really bad accident on top of the other surgeries he’s already had. You hate to see him wind down his career like this, playing every so often. But he made history. He’s the greatest ever. And he made the sport cool for Black people.”

Graham said: “Maybe it’s just me, but golf will not be the same without Tiger playing regularly. The day was going to come at some point, but he still had a lot left. I guess there will be a big  buildup every time he tees it up. But through his success, so many people were inspired to play a game that they didn’t have any interest in before him. He walked right in the path Elder and others created for him.”

Khary Mitchell, who co-created the Facebook page Black Golfers Association and the website Honor 61 — which celebrates the legacy of Black golfers and seeks to continue its growth among  Black people — said Elder’s lasting mark as a golfer and as a man speaks to more than the game.

“I can only hope that his spirit continues to embody the golfer in our day and age, especially in the African American community,”  he said. “There were more Lee Elders out there that never got a club in their hand to learn what it’s like to imagine a shot, hit that shot. There was always some sort of legal, financial or racial issue hindering our ability to be a part of golf.” 

And that continues today. Beside Woods, Cameron Champ and Harold Varner are the only Black mainstays on the PGA Tour. Recreationally, Blacks’ participation in the sport grew exponentially once Woods began dominating golf in the late 1990s.

But it all goes back to Elder. “He allowed my dad to get excited about the game and allowed me to participate in the game,” Woods said on ESPN after he won the 2019 Masters. “He set a progression … society needed.”

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CORRECTION (Nov. 30, 2021, 9:40 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated a record attributed to Tiger Woods. Although he has won 82 golf tournaments, more than any other male player, he has not won more golf tournaments than anyone else. Kathy Whitworth won 88 tournaments on the LPGA Tour.



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