Lee Elder’s rise from teenage hustler to US Masters trailblazer

First black golfer to play at Augusta began as a hustling partner to Titanic Thompson

Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play at the US Masters, died recently aged 87. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty

Lee Elder, the first black golfer to play at the US Masters, died recently aged 87. Photograph: Kevin C Cox/Getty

 

Now, let’s be clear about this right here at the beginning. Not all the stories they tell about Alvin “Titanic Thompson” Thomas are strictly accurate. He wasn’t given his nickname because he escaped from the ship by disguising himself as a woman and sneaking into a lifeboat. He didn’t beat Ben Hogan playing golf right-handed, he didn’t beat Byron Nelson playing left-handed, and he certainly didn’t do both back-to-back. And he never did con Al Capone out of $500 by throwing an orange over a five-storey building. According to one of his biographers it was actually a lemon. And according to the other, he swapped it with one he’d stuffed with buckshot the previous evening.

But some of them are true. Or something like it. And this is one of them.

In the early 1950s, Thompson was living in Dallas where, a friend had told him, there “was big money to be made off rich Texans with a gambling spirit that hardly matched their handicaps”. Many days, he was at Tenison Park golf course. “A lot of different people played there,” wrote Lee Trevino, who did too when he was young, “it was the only golf course I’ve ever seen where the parking lot was filled with Cadillacs, jalopies, pickups and beverage trucks”. Thompson was also there. “If you saw him once, you’d always remember him,” Trevino wrote. Thompson was in his 70s then. “He had the youngest pair of hands and the clearest blue eyes I ever saw.”

Trevino said Thompson could be relied on to show up “anywhere people enjoyed games with money on the line”. He never drove, never drank, never smoked, “he did everything possible to ensure he had the edge in anything he bet on”. Trevino once saw him take a water hose and leave it on a green while it was watered, then move it the next day. When they mowed the green the hose left a groove behind it. “I saw Ti bet a guy he could sink three out of five putts from 30 feet, then send the ball right through that trough”. Trevino wasn’t the only future pro hanging around Tenison back then. Lee Elder was there too.

Elder, who would go on to become the first black man to play in the Masters, and who would, in time, become one of the tournament’s three honorary starters. He has just died, at the age of 87.

When Thompson met Elder, he was working at Tenison as a caddie. Elder was the youngest of 10 children, who were all orphaned when their parents died within three months of each other during the second world war. His aunt raised him in Los Angeles, where he worked as a caddie. But by the time he was 16, he was out on his own. He had his own set of clubs, a gift from another hustler who used to hang out there, Dick Martin. Years later, when Elder was a successful pro, he met Martin again, and wrote him a cheque for $40 to pay for them. Elder could play, when he got the opportunity. But there weren’t a lot of those going. Most clubs had colour bars. Elder was 16 before he ever played a full 18 holes.

Proposition

Thompson made Elder a proposition. They would go on the road, around the golf clubs across the south, and split the take 50-50. “You’ll make more money than you’ve ever seen,” he promised. Thompson wasn’t a civil rights advocate, he just figured that all that prejudice gave them an edge. It could be used against the people who held it. They made an odd couple, a 70-something white man and a black teenager, travelling together in a Cadillac. “I’m not proud of everything that happened with Ti,” Elder said later, “because some of the ruses were a little sneaky. But it was an interesting life.” And an education too. “Every day I learned something new from him.”

Usually it went like this, Thompson would give the haircut and Elder the shave.

“Do you mean to say you’re scared to play my coloured-boy caddie?” Thompson would tell the men he was playing against, and of course, when they did, Elder would beat them flat. “The kid can’t play worth a nickel, give us two strokes a side.” Sometimes he would even dress up in livery and pose as Thompson’s chauffeur, the line that time went something like “I bet you couldn’t even beat me if I was partnered with him, and he’s never even tried golf before”. And when they didn’t fall for that, they’d handicap him. In those years, Elder won games playing on one leg, off his knees and cross-handed (he never explained that it was the grip he’d first learned when he was a kid). One time, he even won a game playing in a full rain-suit in 100 degrees heat.

The bet was $500 for nine holes. “So they dress me up in this rain suit, zip it up to my collar, tape it at the sleeves and legs so I couldn’t get air. I thought I was going to suffocate.” Elder won the match on the 7th. One telling of that story goes that Elder wrapped iced towels around his limbs before they dressed him.

Thompson and Elder split up in ’58, or thereabouts. If he wasn’t proud of their time together, Elder once said he wasn’t ashamed of it either. “I had to depend on my hustling to make a living in golf.” The PGA was Caucasian-only until 1961, and the prize pots on the UGA, which was open to everyone, were so small you couldn’t live off them.

When Elder finally did make it to the PGA, he finished in the money in his first nine tournaments. When he was finally invited to play the Masters in 1975, he said later, all those years hustling with Ti “had trained me to handle pressure” he felt on the first tee. Thompson didn’t live to see it. He had died a few months previous. Chances are, he was still figuring the odds. - Guardian

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