1971: Wife of African-American Pro writes to the Chairman of The Masters

Lee Elder and his wife Rose.
The original newspaper headline from April 20th, 1971 edition of The New York Times

Considerable interest has been created by remarks of Clifford Roberts, tournament chairman of The Masters golf tournament held annually at Augusta, Ga., concerning the absence of black competitors in this prestigious event. A letter addressed to Roberts dated April 8, 1971 was sent to the press building there by Mrs. Lee Elder of Washington, wife of the black professional. The envelope was marked for the attention of five individuals. The club subsequently forwarded the letter, which had been received the day after the Masters concluded.

Because of lack of space Mrs. Elder’s letter is not reprinted in its entirety, but I believe the following excerpts reflect its tone and content.

“Dear Mr. Roberts: I am reading The Washington Post on this morning’s flight. The newspaper carries a UPI article captioned ‘Masters Hopes for a Black’ I would like to discuss a few of the comments with you.

1. The paper quotes you as stating the Masters is ‘the loser by never having had a black golfer.’ Frankly, Mr. Roberts, I don’t think the Masters has lost very much at all. I understand from the news media that your tickets for admission and the accommodations for guests are sold out well in advance.

2. You stated that the loss has been caused by the ‘in ability of black golfers to meet the Masters’ rigid qualification standards and not because of any efforts to keep blacks out. No one ought to qualify except on his proven ability to play.’ My husband, Lee Elder, en rolled in the P.G.A. school in 1967. He played eight rounds of golf, 144 holes, over a two‐ week period. He was in school competing among some of the best young pros now on the tour. It was in this school that my husband earned his approved player’s card. From there he went on to play the P.G.A. tour with the best golfers in the world and let me say, Mr. Roberts, that I am as proud as hell each time they call Lee Elder to the tee (and whether he shoots 65 or 85 there’s no doubt he can play).

“Just for the record: During his first year as a rookie he finished in the top 60 money winners and carried Jack Nicklaus to a rugged five‐hole playoff in the American Golf Classic. He didn’t win the title but he did go five holes with ‘the world’s greatest’ as my husband calls him. So Mr. Elder can play a bit. The next, his second year on the tour, Mr. Elder continued to play super golf. He again finished in the top 60 money winners. His third year he did not make the top 60. Now he is entering his fourth year and has earned about $12,000. So you see, Mr. Roberts, he has ‘proved his ability to play golf.’

“You also said ‘the sooner a black plays in the Masters the happier I will be.’ I know how you can bring that about, Mr. Roberts. Simply invite the top 60 money winners to the Masters as does all other invitational tournaments. By doing this you would only have to wait until 1972 to become a very happy man.

3. You stated ‘blacks often furnish the greatest of athletes in football, baseball, basketball, in the Olympics. Think how much it would help our TV rating if we had a Willie Mays in the Masters.’ Mr. Roberts, Willie Mays is a baseball player and a damn good one but there are potential Willie Mays golfers available. Think of Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown or Lee Elder. Sifford has won the Los Angeles open and Brown the San Diego open. You also said ‘There is no doubt that when blacks make the same efforts in golf as in other athletic fields they’ll have a place here. But few are making a serious effort.’ I am sure you will admit it is comparatively easy for a young black boy to go to a basketball court, football or baseball field. It is not that easy for that same lad to go to a country club and play golf every day. Right in Washington, D.C., there are places where Lee is not allowed to play because he is a black. So you see, Mr. Roberts, it is difficult except for the most dedicated blacks to make a ‘serious effort to play.’

4. You also said ‘it’s true on the foreign level we invite anyone we choose.’ I believe this! In this week’s Golf World magazine a black pro wrote to the editor about black golfers not being in your tournament. The editor replied ‘We have suggested to Charlie Sifford that he move to Bogota and maybe he could get a foreign invite.’

“I asked my husband to tell me how he would feel if he could play in the Masters. He said, ‘It’s true I would like to play but I know there’s a lot of young whites who didn’t get invited either. Take J. C. Snead. He won two tournaments this year but they didn’t invite him.’ I tell you the Masters prize money should not be official money when there are such rigid restrictions.”

New York Times – 04/20/1971 – Edition

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