In last Sunday's final round of the Westchester Golf Classic at Harrison, N.Y., an extraordinary thing happened.
Oh, it was not so much that the tournament was won by Lee Elder. This was the fourth tournament Elder has won; the second this year.
What was extraordinary was that no one noted breathlessly that this was the most tournaments ever won by a black player on the tour. No one mentioned that this was the most money ever won in a single tournament by a black player ever to represent the U.S. in the Ryder Cup.
You would have thought Elder was just another blue-eyed blond from Bringham Young or Florida State, or someone who learned the game at pater's on Long Island in between yacht races.
Lee Elder is just Lee Elder. The old pro. You have the feeling if someone trudged up the hill at 18, stopped, pointed and said "Who is the black player making birdie up there" your veteran golf fan would have stopped, scowled, and said "That's no black player, that's Lee Elder.
A black player winning a golf tournament is not as common as a black player making a free throw, a touchdown, a knockout, or even striking out the side, but thanks to Elder it is no longer in the category of a rich man going to heaven. The Urban League can move on to other things. The NAACP can concentrate on redling.The pro tour is secure. The crown eyes can win it.
Golf is not a ghetto sport. Neither was flying jet airplanes. But Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James, to whose memory Elder is dedicating his pro-am scholarship tournament next month at Kingsmill, in Williamsburg, Va., made it all the way to commander in chief of the North American air defense command. Gen. James and Lee Elder belong not to black history but to American history.
It was not easy for Elder. You can't play golf in anger. Neither can you Uncle Tom your way onto the Ryder Cup team. Elder still had to shoot his way into the parlor. In other areas, to make up for past injustices, authorities have bent rules to make places for minority applicants. The only rule they bent for Elder was the one that said that only caucasians could play in the PGA. And that was not a rule that was a crime. A federal, constitutional crime.
Elder burst upon golf consciousness in 1968 when he went five stubborn extra holes in a playoff for the American Golf Classie with Jack Nicklaus, no less. He lost the playoff, but won America.
Elder is the first to admit that Charlie sifford and other black pioneers were the shock troops who took the brunt of bigotry in golf. No one rolled a beer can onto the green as Elder was putting. And Elder never blamed the Ku Klux Klan when he missed a short putt. Elder never threw a club or kicked a ball washer.
At 44 he is playing the best golf of his career; he is a multiple winner (Milwaukee, Westchester) this year, and totally exempted next year.You ask Elder why, and the answers are the same you would hear from any member of the pro golf fraternity. "Lee Trevino taught me how to fade the ball and I got rid of that fighting hook; Dave Stockton taught me how to putt without breaking my wrists; and now I'm able to win because I have confidence in both of those strokes."
When the pros start teaching you how to beat them, you have arrived. When Lee Elder can just be Lee Elder, a right-handed pro out of Washington, D.C., so has golf.