The PGA Tour broke the unfortunate news on Monday; thus far, the cause of death has not been made publicly available.
In 1961, after being discharged from the Army, Elder joined the United Golf Association, which was considered the golf equivalent of baseball’s Negro Leagues because it consisted of Black golfers who were prohibited from participating in the PGA Tour (until it eliminated its “whites-only” rule in 1961). He would then go on to dominate the UGA, where he won 21 out of 23 tournaments at one point, before finally earning a spot on the PGA Tour in 1967.
As one of only a handful of Black golfers on the tour, Elder endured a tremendous amount of racism, which he detailed during an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2008:
Man, the stories he could tell. There was the time in Pensacola, Fla., when Elder and the PGA Tour’s other black players were forced to change their clothes in the parking lot because club members wouldn’t allow them in the clubhouse. Or the time in Memphis when the harassment of Elder escalated from his ball mysteriously disappearing on the course to a late-night phone call that awakened Elder in his hotel room. “Nigger,” the voice said, “you better not win this golf tournament.” Elder played the rest of the tournament with a police escort.
Yet for all he endured on the green, Elder kept his eyes on the prize since he had aspirations to compete in the Masters, which was still exclusive to white competitors.
“When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way,” he told Golfweek in 2010. “The Masters was the one tournament that hadn’t been integrated.”
And in 1975, he accomplished that feat, successfully competing at Augusta National and becoming the first Black golfer ever to do so.
“Even when the tournament started, I’d get [death threats], calls, but I was determined not to let it bother me, and it really never did,” he told the Post. “It was unfortunate, but I put it out of my mind. I was there for one reason, to play golf and do the best I could.”
Sadly, Elder missed the cut at his first Masters—he shot a 74 the first day and a 78 in the second round—but his impact on the sport is indelible. And while his passing is heartbreaking, thankfully, he received his flowers for his historic contributions to golf earlier this year, when he was honored alongside fellow legends Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus at the 2021 Masters.
We at The Root send our thoughts and condolences to the friends and family of Elder.