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Lee Elder has had only a so-so year.
Oh, there’ve been plenty of grand times for the 63-year-old Elder, who is still the greatest golfer ever to call Washington home. Like when the Masters turned into Tiger Woods’ coming out party in April, and the young phenom invited other tour veterans of color to the celebration. Woods’ most prominent elder at Augusta was Elder, the first black to play in the snooty Masters and represent the U.S. in the just as snooty Ryder Cup.
Elder, now on the back nine of life, osmosed all sorts of glory from Woods’ apotheosis. After years of relative obscurity, Elder was again tabbed as the links’ equivalent of Jackie Robinson, who was also back in black type for the 50th anniversary of his breaking baseball’s race barrier. Along with all the face time the networks gave Elder while he waltzed down Augusta’s 18th fairway with the icon, and then again throughout the U.S. Open, Nike paired him with Air Woods in some national spots that began airing within weeks of the Masters. Right after the Open, Elder signed with Advantage International, a high-powered sports marketing firm in McLean, Va., hoping to better exploit all the attention and maybe get some percentage of the $40 million Nike had just putted into Woods’ bank account.
“Lee’s stock went up, definitely,” says Rich Moroscak, Elder’s newly hired agent, “to the point where, with all these new offers coming in, it just got overwhelming for him. It’s been good for him.”
But out of Tiger’s shadow and away from the fairways, Elder has spent a good portion of the last year stuck in the rough of the real world. D.C.’s not the sanctuary it once was for Elder. He used to be a fixture on local links, and even managed Langston for a time between quitting the regular PGA tour and joining the senior circuit. But he fled town when his 20-year marriage to Rose Harper Elder broke up in the late 1980s, and not counting that serene jaunt through Congressional in June, many of his recent revisits have given him all the pleasure of a triple bogey.
Not long before that U.S. Open appearance, for example, Elder trekked over to his former house on Taylor Street, now his former wife’s residence, where he needed a police escort to carry out a court order to pick up his suddenly valuable golf memorabilia, which she was holding hostage. Among the trinkets that he asked the court to declare as “priceless” were liquor bottles from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and “four Michelob director’s chairs.”
And a few months earlier, Elder paid a visit to Judiciary Square, where Woods’ new sidekick filed papers with a federal bankruptcy court under the name Robert Lee Elder, claiming he’s flat broke and begging for relief from hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to nearly two dozen creditors.
“What with the timing of the case and his connection to Tiger Woods, all of us involved in Lee Elder’s bankruptcy felt the irony,” laughs one creditor’s D.C. attorney. “How could you not?”
Elder, who is a Florida resident, did not return phone calls for this article. Gregory Johnson, a local barrister representing Elder in the bankruptcy filing, blamed his client’s subpar fiscal fitness on what he described as years of misappropriation of the golfer’s funds by his ex-business managerRose Harper Elder. A federal court cited Rose’s utter failure to cooperate with bankruptcy trustees and lawyers for her ex, and ordered her to sell her house and turn over the bulk of the equity to Lee. (Rose initially agreed to be interviewed by Washington City Paper, then declined.)
Last month, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge S. Martin Teel Jr. discharged Elder’s case under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code, ordering that all his assets at the time of the filing be liquidated and the proceeds used to pay off attorneys and creditors. Elder’s post-filing earnings, including any and all monies he reaps from his Woods link, are protected from past creditors. If allowed to stand, Teel’s decree essentially grants Elder a mulligan.
The ruling didn’t mollify Elder’s many creditors. The Grand Wailea Hotel, a Hawaiian resort, has one of the biggest outstanding tabs listed on the bankruptcy filing. As Elder re-emerged during the Masters, hotel staffers didn’t give a damn about his status as golf’s Jackie Robinson. To them, Elder was just the guy who stiffed the hotel for over $200,000.
According to the Grand Wailea, Elder reserved 274 rooms and some banquet halls for what was to be the inaugural Lee Elder Golf Pro Classic last year, then didn’t bother showing up for his own tournament, or even informing the hotel that the tournament wasn’t going to take place. (In making arrangements with the resort, Elder wrote that he’d obtained a commitment from a number of celebrities, including Johnny Mathis and “Dr. Julius Irving.”)
“Mr. Elder just stopped returning any of my phone calls or faxes, and then nobody showed up,” says Grand Wailea sales representative Brian Lynx. “I had signed contracts from him, and I trusted him. But nothing.”
Lynx was among the most riveted viewers of the Masters telecast.
“It was my deal, so when Tiger Woods is winning the Masters and they put Lee Elder on TV, my phone starts ringing off the hook, with all these people from the hotel yelling at me, ‘Now you know where he is, Bryan! He’s at the Masters, Bryan! Call Augusta, Bryan! Call the networks! Go get us our money!’ It was a total fiasco for me, just awful. And he never even told me why,” recalls Lynx.
Attorneys for some creditors are currently fighting Teel’s ruling in the case, alleging that their debts were incurred fraudulently and therefore not subject to Chapter 7 protections.
Howard Dubosar, a Florida lawyer, is among those asking the court to separate their notes from the bankruptcy. According to court documents, Elder owes more than $54,000 to Dubosar, who is now trying to get the court to enforce an earlier ruling by a Florida state judge that allowed him to garnishee Elder’s wages from the Senior PGA tour. Lately, the golfer hasn’t been bringing home too much bacon on the course; last weekend, Elder finished 24 shots off the lead in the BankBoston tournament, good enough for fourth-to-last place and $729 in take-home pay. But where his irons have failed him, his Woods’ bond should pay dividends.
“The Tiger Woods and Jackie Robinson situations couldn’t come at a better time for Lee, clearly,” says Johnson. “Now he’s back in the spotlight, and he’s working to get back up financially and established.” According to Advantage International, several sponsorship deals are in the works.
If his motion against Chapter 7 discharge is upheld, Dubosar might profitor, rather, break evenfrom Elder’s renaissance. If not, he’s left with an unpaid bill and a good story.
“The bankruptcy code was set up so people can get a fresh start,” says Dubosar. “Lee Elder happens to be walking into a better situation after the bankruptcy than he was before it. He got rid of all the prior claims and can now just sit back and enjoy his newfound fame and fortune. It’s like a guy who files bankruptcy and then goes out and wins the lottery; I couldn’t go after his winnings, either. I’m not going to comment on if that’s fair, but I will say this: It’s the law.”Dave McKenna