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Lee Elder, golf pioneer who broke the race barrier at the Masters, dies at 87

NOEL KING, HOST:

Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament, has died.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Elder started playing regularly in PGA Tour events in 1968, only a few years after it first accepted non-white players. He later told NPR's Donna Limerick that there were times he had to literally play through racists. In his second year on the tour, he was leading a golf tournament in Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LEE ELDER: I was on about the 15th hole, and I drove my ball down the left side of the fairway. Several people jumped the fence, grabbed my ball and threw it out in the road and stayed there and called me all kind of racial slur names. And then that night, as a matter of fact, they called the motel that we were staying at and threatened my wife and my life. And the next day, we had to play with guards walking in the fairway.

KING: In 1971, Elder played in South Africa's first integrated tournament, and then came the Masters in '75. It's played annually in Augusta, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELDER: The response after I qualified for Augusta were something of great significance. It was just like a person that were constantly on stage all the time.

MARTINEZ: He played in the Masters six times. In 1997, Tiger Woods won the tournament. He was the first African American and Asian American to do so. Lee Elder was there. Woods said he thought of Elder on that final hole.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIGER WOODS: I was the first, but I wasn't the pioneer. Charlie Sifford, Lee Elder, Teddy Rhodes - you know, those guys are the ones who paved the way in order for me to be here, and I thank them because if it wasn't for them, I may not have had the chance to ever play golf.

KING: This year, Elder spoke as an honorary starter at the Masters, along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELDER: For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed, I've been involved in.

KING: Lee Elder died on Sunday in Escondido, Calif., according to the PGA Tour. He was 87 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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