Wednesday, September 29

Lee Elder, Jack Nicklaus and the American Golf Classic

AS THE RAIN FELL this morning at the Ensure Classic at Rock Barn, I talked with 76-year-old Lee Elder, a four-time PGA Tour winner and the first African American to play in the Masters. I told Lee one of my earliest memories of watching golf on television was when he squared off against Jack Nicklaus in a sudden-death playoff at the American Golf Classic.

(If you are of a certain age, you may remember it. It was played at Firestone Country Club, the site of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Before the American Golf Classic, the Firestone event was called the Rubber City Open.)

I was a kid, it was 1968, and we had a portable black-and-white Zenith set with rabbit ears. Today, Lee reminded me about some of the details of that long-ago duel. He said what most people don’t remember was that the playoff included Frank Beard until Lee and Jack birdied 16 and Beard dropped out.

Who is Lee Elder? That’s what I wondered at the time. Everyone knew who Jack was. Jack was the man. It was Lee’s rookie season on the PGA Tour and he didn’t blink during his five-hole showdown with Nicklaus. Jack won. But Lee’s play made enough of an impression on me that I still remember it more than 40 years later.

Elder would wait six more years for his first PGA Tour win, the 1974 Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Florida. It put him into the Masters, finally breaking the color barrier at Augusta National. Lee was also the first black to play in the Ryder Cup when he qualified for the 1979 team.

And Beard, the forgotten man in that 1968 playoff, won the American Golf Classic two years later.

−The Armchair Golfer

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