From Dan Conway’s Corner
When Lee Elder passed away in November at the age of 87, it all came back to me — the life story of a remarkable man, and the tales of what he used to get up to as a young golf hustler.
“I knew it was dishonest,” he said years later when talking about hustling, “but there are times when you have to forget about dishonesty when you want to survive.”
When he said that he was referring to a period when he occasionally worked in tandem with an infamous White golf hustler named Alvin Thomas, who was nicknamed ‘Titanic Thompson’. Lee would pose as Titanic’s chauffeur. Titanic would then challenge the two best golfers in a club, betting that he and his chauffer could beat them.
Titanic was in fact a top class golfer, and Lee Elder was already showing the raw talent that was soon to make him a successful pro. Together they won the challenges and moved on to the next club, cleaning up financially as they went.
But before he reached that stage in his life, Lee Elder had had it tough. Youngest of a family of ten children, his father a truck driver who was killed in the Second World War when Lee was nine, he lost his mother who died barely months later. There followed a period of being shuffled between aunts and uncles.
His first contact with golf was when, as a 12-year-old, he became a bag carrier for players on public course. The ‘pay’ was one dollar a round. He’d then practise during the after-hours time slot set aside for caddies.
He had an aptitude for the sport, taught himself how to play, and got better and better the more he practised. Then he discovered hustling.
He sometimes played on one leg, or on his knees, or wearing a heavy overcoat on days when the sun roasted the fairways. He had to hustle — he was black, poor, and racially discriminated against.
Like Martin Luther King, Lee Elder developed a dream.