Elder’s trailblazing career has focused on his integration of The Masters in 1975, but what is lesser-known is the fact that the native Texan was among the earliest Black golfers to compete in the Open Championship, golf’s oldest tournament.
Elder shot 75-72-76-76 to finish in a tie for 36th at the 1979 Open Championship. Elder’s appearance at Royal Lytham & St. Annes that year was the only time he teed off at the Open.
Elder’s lone appearance at the Open was one of the best by a Black golfer. The biggest reason for the absence of color was because many of the Black legends of the game never had the equal opportunity to make a trip across the pond.
The R&A oversees golf around the world and has devoted programming to growing the game among women and minorities. While this year’s field features golfers from Japan, South Africa, Spain, Mexico, Australia and others, there is only one Black golfer in this year’s field – Harold Varner III.
As for the dearth of Black golfers in earlier generations, Bill Spiller, Pete Brown, Ted Rhodes and Charlie Sifford were past their prime by the time the golf relaxed its “Caucasian only” clause in 1961. Calvin Peete made 26 starts at major championships, including a pair of top 10 finishes in the U.S. Open in 1982 and 1983, but never played in the Open.
Jim Thorpe did make a pair of appearances in the mid-1980s, but he did not make the weekend in either circumstance.
The dearth of Black participation at The Open was still apparent when Tiger Woods made his first appearance in 1995. Woods has since won the tournament three times and finished fourth in the 2003 Open – two shots behind eventual winner Ben Curtis – that was played at Royal St. George.
Woods missed the last Open that was held at Royal St. George in 2011 and will do so again this year. That leaves Varner as the only Black golfer who will attempt to become the Champion Golfer of the Year.
Varner will make his second appearance at The Open. The 30-year-old Ohio native finished tied for 66th at Royal Troon in 2016. He enters having finished in a tie for 11th at last week’s John Deere Classic in Illinois.
This week, Varner tweeted he has #majormotivation at Royal St. George. Following in Elder’s footsteps by teeing off at The Open Championship, days after the trailblazer’s 87th birthday, may be all the inspiration needed to win the Claret Jug.