After Suffering Heart Attack, Lee Elder Now on Course on Senior Tour
Lee Elder is the surprise entry in the senior division of the Tournament of Champions, which ushers in the professional golf season beginning Thursday at La Costa.
Fourteen months ago, Elder had no intention of playing in this tournament. He was in a hospital fighting for his life.
Only tournament winners qualify for the opening tournament of the season. Elder climaxed an extraordinary comeback by winning the Gus Machado tournament in late November. His 6 under 65 on the last round enabled him to win by 5 shots with a 54-hole total of 202. He had made it back almost a year to the day after suffering a heart attack that threatened his life.
After finishing ninth in the Gus Machado at Key Biscayne, Fla. Nov. 22, 1987, Elder became ill. He had been on a busy schedule in October and November, flying coast-to-coast twice and to Japan, competing in tournaments every week. He had complained of back and side pains during the tournament, wearing a brace for the last round after leading the first round.
“I probably was worn out, but I thought it was a back problem,” Elder recalled. “I never thought about a heart attack. Something like that couldn’t happen to Lee Elder. But it did. By 10 that night I was in terrible pain. I had to go to the hospital.”
Elder was in the intensive care heart unit for 5 days and remained in the hospital another 9 days.
“The doctor told me that only extensive tests would determine whether I would ever play golf again,” said Elder, who arrived early in Southern California to practice for the tournament. “It was frightening. I was only 53 and golf was my life. I didn’t know anything else. There was a chance I would wind up like Arthur Ashe, unable to compete again.
“As it turned out, I was lucky. There was only a small tear in the heart. Tests indicated there was very little blockage of the arteries. The doctor said being a golfer, being outside so much and walking, probably kept me from having a much more severe attack.
“Ten days after going to the hospital, my doctor came into the room and said, ‘I have some very good news for you. You will be able to play again. It’s your choice. You had a stress cholesterol attack. Rest, time, no stress and rehabilitation are the answer. It’s up to you.’ ”
It meant a complete change in life style. He had to give up smoking, decrease his drinking, go on a low cholesterol diet and take cardiovascular treatment daily.
“I had been a heart attack waiting to happen,” he said. “I smoked two or three packs of cigarettes a day and I had been drinking heavily. I had very high cholesterol and wore myself out physically with all that traveling. I ate the worst possible foods, eggs, fatty meats and lots of it. I let myself get fat. In addition, I kept my anger inside of me, under control on the course. I wanted to keep up an image. Of course, there were times in the clubhouse when I blew my top. I would throw the offending club--it’s always the club’s fault--around the locker room after a poor round.
“I was determined to follow orders and continue my career. Quitting smoking was easy. I couldn’t smoke during the 14 days in the hospital. The diet and the drinking, except for the holidays, were not too tough, either. I’m on a 1,700 calories per day diet and I haven’t had an egg in more than a year. I go to the cardiovascular treatment center every day and I walk at least 2 miles.”
When the doctor told Elder he could start chipping in January, Elder said he wanted to play in the Senior PGA, which is played near his Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. home, and started Feb. 10. He was told he couldn’t.
“But, he told me I could start swinging a club Jan. 20,” Elder said. “He told me it would probably hurt at first. I was to stop, take a nitroglycerin pill and try again. It never did hurt at all. The first few days I was afraid to swing hard, but when I finally did, it still didn’t hurt.
“When I started hitting golf balls, it was like hitting into a three-club wind. I had no strength. It wasn’t that difficult to adjust, especially with the irons. I have always been a good iron player.”
Elder, to the surprise of his doctor, played in the Senior PGA. He amazed everyone by shooting a 70 in the first round. Although he faded somewhat, he still earned $7,000.
“I knew I still had a long way to go,” he said. “Probably a year. At first, I would play a tournament and rest one week. In warm weather I could play two in a row.
“Guys I used to outdrive were now hitting the ball farther than I could. I wanted to do some weightlifting to regain my strength, but the doctor wouldn’t let me. However, I was allowed to use 3-pound weights when I went for my walk.
“The change was gradual. My caddy has been with me 8 years and when I practiced, he would measure off the distance I hit with each club. But, I could tell by the way I felt that I was hitting the ball better.”
By late summer, Elder was playing regularly again and challenged in a couple of tournaments.
“I would have felt good if I never shot better than 80,” he said. “It was wonderful just competing again. It was a real bonus when I won the tournament.”
The victory put Elder in select company. He is one of nine pros to win $1 million on the Regular PGA tour and also on the Senior tour.
Elder was the first black golfer to play in the Masters. He was the first to make the Ryder Cup team, and the first to win a million on each tour. But he doesn’t consider himself a pioneer.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I had it easy. Charlie Sifford, Pete Brown and Rafe Botts. They took most of the knocks. They did the fighting. They were the ones not allowed to even dress in the clubhouse. I experienced some things, but it keeps getting better. I’m just trying to make it easier for those who will come along after me.
“The worst experience was at the Masters in 1975. I was always on stage. Everybody wanted to know how it felt. And some wondered, ‘Is he a gentleman?’ I was a little bit better than the caddies.
“In the week we (his wife Rose) were at the Masters, we had to change houses four times. The pressure was unfair. I couldn’t think about golf. It was the first time I was ever happy to miss the cut. The next year Calvin Peete was there, too, so it was nothing.”
All the problems in a pro career that began 30 years ago don’t seem too important since the heart attack.
“The Lord gave me a second chance and I’m not going to get upset about anything,” Elder said. “Maybe, I do have one little goal. I want to outdrive those guys again. Maybe this is the week I’ll do it.”