The first black player to be invited to the Masters Tournament, Elder taught himself to play golf mostly by sneaking onto all-white courses at night.
He never actually played a round until he was sixteen. By his late teens, he was a golf hustler, often posing as a caddie. He led that uneasy existence until 1959, when he was drafted into the Army. Elder spent most of his military stint playing golf with his commanding officer at Fort Lewis in Washington State. After being discharged in 1961, he joined the all-black United Golf Association tour. He dominated the tour, winning five UGA national championships. In one stretch, Elder won 21 of 23 tournaments.
In November of 1967, Elder become one of first black golfers on the PGA tour. The following year, he won some notice by tying Frank Beard and Jack Nicklaus for the lead in the American Golf Classic. Beard was out of the playoff after bogeying the first extra hole, but Elder and Nicklaus dueled evenly for four holes. Nicklaus finally won with a birdie on the fifth hole after Elder narrowly missed a long birdie putt. Elder was invited by Gary Player to take part in the 1971 South African PGA Tournament, the first integrated tournament in that country's history. He accepted after insisting on some conditions: That the gallery be integrated and that he and his wife would be allowed to stay at whatever hotel they chose and free to go wherever they wanted to go.
His first PGA victory came in the 1974 Monsanto Open, automatically winning an invitation to the 1975 Masters. Elder also won the Houston Open in 1976 and played in the 1977 Masters. In 1979, Elder became the first black golfer to play for the Ryder Cup team.
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