Lee Elder was a pioneer in integrating golf.
Yet, 46 years after he broke the color barrier at golf’s biggest stage, those in the game say there’s still more work to be done at growing and diversifying golf.
“I think there’s still a lot of work; a lot of work to do. I just think people need to come together and realize where we are, where the game is and where it’s going,” said Cameron Champ, a 25-year-old biracial player on the PGA Tour. “Obviously COVID has brought a new light to the game, but in order for it to grow and in order to see more minorities and people of color out here, something has to change.”
In recent months, Dr. Lee Elder, who received an honorary doctorate from Paine College on Tuesday, has again resurfaced as one a prominent figure in diversifying the game of golf..
It made perfect sense for him to join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – who helped Elder first break the color barrier at the South African PGA Championship – as honorary starters for the 85th Masters Tournament.
“Tomorrow morning we also will reflect on the moment at Augusta National in 1975 when Lee Elder bravely broke barriers as his name was announced on the first tee,” said Fred Ridley, Masters chairman at his press conference Wednesday. The ceremony is set for 7:45 a.m.
Champ, who will be playing in his second straight Masters, said it’s big for Elder to be the symbol for African-American success on the course.
“For us, that’s the people who I look up to,” Champ said. “I know who my grandfather did. So, it definitely means a lot, again, to kind of learn from him and kind of take — kind of pick things out and just kind of pick his brain.”
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Elder was the first African-American to play in the South African PGA Championship during apartheid in 1971. Elder then became the first Black golfer to play in the Masters in 1975.
After Augusta National Golf Club announced in November that it would be endowing two scholarships in Elder’s name at Paine and would be contributing to start a women’s golf program, Champ said he was inspired to assist Prairie View A&M, a historically black university just outside Houston.
With the efforts of Champ and Augusta Nationa as well as basketball superstar Stephen Curry assisting with Howard’s golf program, there’s been a visible increase in support for opportunities in golf the for people of color.
“We’re doing just a little bit of what we can do with our resources and the people we know, but with the Tour and, like I said, Augusta doing a lot of things and many other organizations, it’s going to take a whole community to be able to bring it back up to where I think it needs to be and where a lot of people probably think it needs to be,” Champ said.
Elder added that it takes corporate assistance as well.
“The young Black people that are trying to get to those heights, they don’t have it right now because they don’t have the financial backing that will help them get to that height,” Elder said. “So, I hope that more of the corporate world will look at them and take the step to make sure that they will help them get to that point because that’s what we need.”
Since Elder, there have been five Black players to play in the Masters.
In 1997, Tiger Woods became the first black golfer to win the Masters. He went on to win four more green jackets, most recently in 2019. Elder was in attendance for Woods’ first one.
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Golf has come a long way since 1975. With all the milestones set and barriers crossed by Elder, he’s the perfect example for a change in a predominantly white sport.
Following the win in 1997, Earl Woods said that Woods’ win would “open up a lot of doors.” Since Woods’ historic victory, Champ is the only black golfer to win on the PGA Tour and appear in the Masters.
And there’s still progress that must be made.
“Obviously, I like it because it’s who I am, but it’s just like, I have to do that,” Champ said of being a voice on the PGA Tour. “Again, it’s a subject, again, that hasn’t been brought up since everything’s happened. It just kind of gets pushed to the back burner like it does always.
“Just trying to keep it going and trying to create more foundation around it to get it going and get it building because, like I said … social injustice or equality or race — it’s only talked about when bad incidents happen, which is kind of unfortunate. You know, like I said, just got to keep pushing.”