Masters Honorary Starter Lee Elder Passes the Torch of Hope to 12 Black PGA Members
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
Center - Lee Elder, PGA L-R (standing): Kendall Murphy, PGA; Kennie Sims, PGA; Gerry Hammond, PGA; Maulana Dotch, PGA; Rich Jones, PGA; Wyatt Worthington, PGA; Howie Pruitt, PGA; Scooter Clark, PGA; Renee Powell, PGA; Jeff Dunovant, PGA; Earl Cooper, PGACourtesy of Augusta National Golf Club
PGA Member Lee Elder, who lived the dream of competing in the spring in Augusta, Georgia, has repeatedly felt the impact of the month of April upon his life.
It was April 21, 1974, when Elder won the Monsanto Open, guaranteeing he would become the first Black golfer to earn a berth in the 1975 Masters.
Thirteen days earlier, Elder’s friend, Hank Aaron, broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. As fate would have it, 47 years later to the day of Aaron’s epic blast, Augusta National Golf Club welcomed the 86-year-old Elder as an Honorary Starter for the 85th Masters alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
An April day later, the PGA of America held a special celebration for Elder just south of Augusta National at Augusta Municipal Golf Course. Affectionately called “The Patch,” the landmark facility was the first in the city to allow Blacks to play in the 1960s.
Among the special guests next to Elder at both Augusta National last Thursday and at the celebration on Friday were 12 Black PGA Members carrying their own history-making credentials.
PGA Member - Club/Affiliation - Hometown
Renee Powell, PGA Hall of Fame - Clearview Golf Club Clearview Legacy Foundation - Canton, Ohio
Mackenzie Mack, PGA - Callaway Golf Company - Carlsbad, Calif.
Maulana Dotch, PGA - Hermann Park Golf Course - Houston
Gerry Hammond, PGA - In The Number - Columbus, Ohio
Earl Cooper, PGA - Eastside Golf - Philadelphia
Rich Jones, PGA - Pine Ridge Golf Club Golf Galaxy - Rich Jones Golf Academy - Coram, N.Y.
Wyatt Worthington II, PGA - APGA Tour - Las Vegas
Each PGA Member was moved by the experience.
“Dr. Elder was able to see through the 12 of us that his struggle has made an impact, and these are the fruits of his labor,” said Scooter Clark, PGA, of Frisco, Texas, Director of the PGA WORKS Collegiate Championship. “What all his work has meant and that everything leading up to 1975 wasn't in vain.”
For Earl Cooper, PGA, Co-Founder of Eastside Golf, a Philadelphia-based apparel company looking to grow the game through fashion and culture, it was a moment that moved him to tears. “To be standing on the shoulders of giants, for what he did to break the color barrier, there is so much more to do. Lee Elder gives me the energy to keep going. To be part of that moment was very inspiring."
“To be able to actually walk up to a pioneer and say, ‘Thank you for making a way for me’ is incredible,” said Mackenzie Mack, of Callaway Golf Company in Carlsbad, California, and the first Black person to compete on Indiana State University women’s golf team. “I’m glad that we as an industry were able to acknowledge, celebrate and figuratively give roses to Dr. Elder while he could receive them.”
Declining health prevented Elder from hitting a tee shot a day before, but once he stood with a driver in hand, the ovation he received was as if he split the fairway.
“Life is made up of many moments,” said PGA President Jim Richerson during the PGA Member ceremony, which coincided with the second round of The Masters. “Moments that will make you think. Moments that will shape your beliefs, and moments that will shape your life. For those that were fortunate enough to be in attendance this week and share in the life of the great Lee Elder, it will be a moment they will never forget.”
“There was no place on Earth that any one of us would have wanted to be than on that First Tee last Thursday,” said PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh. “Dr Elder’s accomplishments, courage and grace were all so evident and had such an impact on all in attendance and indeed around the World. What a privilege and an honor to be in the presence of this incredible man and his well deserved legend.”
“It was an honor for me to be a part of this, in the presence of his family and our incredible golf professionals attending the event,” echoed John Easterbrook Jr., the PGA’s Chief Membership Officer.
Elder, Richerson, and Waugh were joined onstage by Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr. and Paine College President Dr. Cheryl Evans Jones.
Elder survived quintuple bypass surgery a decade earlier and is blind in his left eye as a result of diabetes, yet he maintains a positive outlook.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” said Elder, a 45-year PGA Member who competed in all four of golf’s majors. “My heart is very soft this morning -- not heavy soft-- soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here.”
“It was unfortunate that this happened so many years later,” said PGA Hall of Fame Member Renee Powell of East Canton, Ohio, who became the first Black woman PGA Member in 1996. “But it was fortunate that he could be there...Lee is such a gracious person and watching his smile; he has the same smile and disposition that he’s always had. I think people now appreciate who he was and the challenges he faced back in 1975.”
Earlier, Davis presented Elder with the inaugural Mayor's Legacy Award, while Paine College bestowed an Honorary Doctorate degree. Richerson then presented a plaque to Elder on behalf of the PGA of America’s nearly 28,000 PGA Professionals, and in celebration of his groundbreaking contributions, including becoming the first Black person to compete and earn a point in the Ryder Cup, which he did for the victorious U.S. team in 1979.
“You have me going to tears,” said Elder. “It is a great honor for me to accept this great token of what the PGA has given to me.”
PGA Member Kennie Sims, Vice President of Golf Operations for Tampa Sports Authority, said he cherished “a front row seat as history was made...The world stopped for a moment to say thank you to Dr. Elder and to atone for what he and others had to endure. Today was one of those days when golf and society came together.”
“I started playing golf in 1966,” said Pruitt, President of the Pacific Northwest PGA Section. “In 1968, Dr. Elder came out on the PGA Tour. I didn’t have a clue what it took to be a PGA Professional. But, he inspired me then, and he continues today. Nearly 40 years after he joined the Tour, I became a proud PGA Member in 2007.”
Gerry Hammond, PGA, of Gahanna, Ohio, is the Founder and CEO of In the Number, which uses golf as a tool to teach integrity, discipline, academic excellence, teamwork and service. “I thought honoring Lee Elder was a testament to the PGA of America’s commitment to establishing and supporting equitable and inclusive opportunities for Black PGA Members. This was a step in the right direction to do what is right for the game.”
Jeff Dunovant, who along with his father, Harold, comprised the first Black PGA Member father-son tandem, said the experience struck home. “I have known Lee Elder personally all my life. He and my father were friends. Lee has always been an inspiration to me and to be there to support him is something I will never forget.”
Maulana Dotch, PGA General Manager at Hermann Park Golf Course in Houston, was a collegiate player at Bethune-Cookman University when she first met Elder.
“Just knowing his story and seeing him happy, loving, and surrounded by people who love him really touched me,” said Dotch, who recently became the first Black woman PGA Member to ascend to General Manager. “This experience fueled my will to keep pushing me to grow this game and make it accessible to all.”
Elder’s torch was figuratively passed throughout the room.
“Dr. Elder has paved the way for me to have the career that I have today, and I am so grateful,” said Kendall Murphy, PGA, of Las Vegas, Career Consultant for the PGA of America. “Today, his strength and courage persevered again.”
“Breaking the color barrier at one of the most traditional events in golf is no easy task,” said Wyatt Worthington II, who became the second African-American PGA Club Professional to compete in the PGA Championship in 2016. “I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of my accomplishments without his sacrifice.”
Rich Jones, PGA Director of Instruction at Pine Ridge Golf Club in Coram, New York and at Golf Galaxy in Bayshore, New York, and owner of Jones Golf Academy, said the “significance and meaning of Elder’s tribute at Augusta National has not escaped me. We must never forget on whose shoulders we stand. Because of him, we can. Because of many before us, we do. As Mr. Elder famously stated, we must ‘stay the course.’”
Clark said his trip to Augusta also brought him to tears.
“This entire week has been unreal,” Clark explained. “It has reinvigorated me to do things organizationally as a PGA Member and staff member to carry the torch for the next generation, to leave my own legacy on the game. This is bigger than any of us, and fortunately industry wide we are now using our collective efforts for the greater good of creating equity in the game we all love.”