Lee Elder breaks ground in stroke-for-stroke play

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's not that Lee Elder approaches golfers on the practice tee and dares to bore them with details of his heart attack . . . but maybe he should. The message is more important than correcting a swing flaw or making a change in equipment.

Elder didn't recognize the symptoms of his health problem. It wasn't until he collapsed on the floor of his bedroom in Pompano Beach, Fla., believing he was paralyzed and making a desperate phone call to his condominium neighbors that he realized he was in serious trouble. They were ready to help.

But there was additional difficulty confronting him. The door was locked and Elder couldn't get to his feet. So he crawled and, using a jabbing stroke with a broomstick, freed the latch so they could gain admittance and offer assistance. That's where Irv and Patty Myers found him.

The paramedics soon arrived and he was taken to Cypress Memorial Hospital. "My arm hurt and it would go numb," he explained. "Then I had chills and, at the same time, broke out in heavy perspiration. I was asking God for another chance and promised if I lived I'd get closer to the Lord."

About the pain. "It was like you had dropped a house on top of my chest and I couldn't breathe." Descriptions don't become more vivid than that. This was in 1987 and Elder, he's pleased to announce, has mended his ways both physically and spiritually. And also his heart.

The visible changes in Elder since the illness are unmistakable. He's 35 pounds lighter, eats only broiled or baked foods and threw away the two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. So now at age 60 there's a new Lee Elder on the Senior Golf Tour.

He has joined with fellow players Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player, Dick Rhyan and Orville Moody to assist the Bayer Corp., the American Heart Association and the PGA Tour to make men and women everywhere aware of cardiovascular disease prevention. The name of their project draws the particular attention of golfers since it's called "Strokes Against Strokes."

"I'm in better control of my health than ever before," Elder reports. "I've got my diet under control. I used to eat a lot of hamburgers but no more. I've eliminated all fried foods. I'm also a regular user of aspirin to minimize heart problems."

As an African-American, he is aware that medical studies show members of his race have a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes. But he is playing golf full-time on the Senior Tour, where he has logged eight tournament victories since 1984 to go with the four he previously won on the regular PGA Tour.

It was Elder who broke the color line in the Masters Championship 20 years ago after qualifying by virtue of winning a tour event. The pioneering aspect hasn't been lost on him and he went back to Augusta this past April for a historical reunion he enjoyed immensely.

He also got the chance to watch Tiger Woods close up and came away believing the young man, enormously talented, is too demanding on himself.

"After all, he's only 19 and has to realize he's going to miss shots," Norman said. "Everyone does. Greg Norman told me he has watched a lot of big hitters at Augusta but never saw any player, except Tiger, drive the ball to the big tree on the 15th hole. Tiger has all the ability and I feel he'll be a great ambassador for golf. Fans in Georgia were with him all the way."

From the standpoint of his own career, he points to the 1979 Ryder Cup in Greenbrier, W.Va., where captain Billy Casper had him in the lineup for every round, as his most memorable experience. "When they announce your name and the American flag is flying behind you and you've just helped your team win the cup, it becomes a moment you can never forget."

Lee also believes Jack Nicklaus is far and away the best golfer of his era or any other. He says Nicklaus conducted all other aspects of his life the same as he played -- straightforward without regard to self-aggrandizement or politics. No doubt Elder is a Nicklaus fan, even if he lost to him more times than he cares to recall.

The Senior Tour has far exceeded his expectations. "I remember when Leo Frazier at the Atlantic City Country Club had the first senior event. I believe it was 1976 and then the Legends Tournament was held three or four years later in Austin, Texas. It's still unbelievable to us seniors to be playing for this kind of purse money."

Apart from his own achievements, Elder has given back in abundance to the game and to helping minorities. On Jan. 16, he'll be staging his 23rd renewal of a charity tournament in Hawaii with 35 professionals from the United States and Japan for what he calls "Step Up For Kids." It leads to college scholarships and helping youngsters pursue other beneficial endeavors.

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