AUGUSTA, Ga. – As the sun peeked over the tall pine trees of Georgia Thursday morning, Lee Elder joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters on the first tee at the Augusta National Golf Club for the 85th edition of the Masters.
Elder, 86, was driven to tee No. 1 in a carriage. Using a cane to walk and an oxygen tank to help him breathe, elders did not hit a ceremonial tee shot like the previous masters.
It did not matter.
“I would certainly say thank you so much for this great opportunity,” Elder said at a news conference shortly after. “For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever witnessed or been involved in. It is definitely something I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here the times I have played here with many of my friends who are members here. “
At the Pandemic Delayed Masters in November, Augusta National Golf Club President Fred Ridley announced that Elder, the first black man to play in the Masters (in 1975), would be invited to join Nicklaus and Player as an honorary starter. The club also awarded two scholarships to Paine College, a nearby HBCU, in the name of seniors.
“Lee Elder is the first black man to compete in the Masters, thus leaping a track that will inspire the game of golf and future generations of players,” Ridley said Thursday morning as he introduced Elder to a gallery of a few hundred patrons.
Former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, a black golfer who competed in his second Masters this week, stood close by. So did several black club professionals who were invited to the ceremony.
“They were undoubtedly inspired by Lee Elder and his message that the game of golf is for everyone,” Ridley said. “Today, Lee Elder wants to inspire us and create history again, not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character.
“Lee, it’s my privilege to say, ‘You have the honor.'”
Elder who grew up in Dallas did not play a round of 18 holes until he was 16. He worked in pro stores and locker rooms and sat on golf courses that were separated in the 1950s. After serving in the Army, he joined the United Golf Association, a tour for black players that won 18 out of 22 events over a stretch.
In 1968, after saving the $ 6,500 required to participate in the PGA Tour, Elder earned his tour card by finishing ninth at Q School. During his rookie season, he lost to Nicklaus in a playoff at the American Golf Classic and fell on the fifth hole with sudden death at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
“I think it really spurred my career,” Elder said. “I know after that I started to flourish pretty well and I think what happened is that it really changed my game because I knew that if I could play five extra holes with the big Jack Nicklaus , I knew I had arrived and that I could play on the tour. “
Elders also have a close connection to Player, a three-time Masters champion from South Africa. In 1971, Player invited Elder to play in the South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg. Elders agreed to leave, but only if the South African government promised that he would not be subjected to apartheid.
“It’s pretty sad to think that these days with the policy of segregation that South Africa had, I had to go to my president and get permission for Lee Elder to come and play in our PGA,” said Player.
Elder won the 1971 Nigerian Open while visiting Africa.
“You can imagine at that point in history how encouraging it was for a young black boy to see this champion play, and then of course with Tiger Woods coming on, it was just absolutely amazing for people of all colors around in world, “said the player.
Elder qualified for the Masters by winning the 1974 Pensacola Open for his first PGA Tour victory. Due to death threats, the trophy ceremony took place inside the clubhouse instead of the 18th green. His Masters invitation came 41 years after the first tournament was played in 1934, the same year he was born.
“I was a little surprised when it was announced that a black player had not played because Lee had certainly played well enough and he had Teddy Rhodes before him and he had Charlie Sifford in front of him and fellows who could well have played, been invited to the champions, ”said Nicklaus. “I thought it was a long delay when he was finally invited.”
When the elder arrived in Augusta for the 1975 champions, he rented two houses due to security concerns. He and his friends were denied a meal at a restaurant because of their race, so the president of Paine College made sure the school cafeteria workers cooked for him the rest of the week.
“The strongest memory I can remember was how nervous I was going to be on the first tee,” Elder said. “But what I remember so much on my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green I went on I got huge applause. I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down [you] down. I have to tell you, I was so nervous when we started playing that it took me a few holes to calm down. “
Elder missed the cut by 4 strokes. Nicklaus won his fifth green jacket by beating Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by 1.
Elders played in the Masters six times from 1975 to 1981, making the cut three times. His best finish was a draw to 17th in 1979.
“I certainly hope the things I have done have inspired many young black players and they will continue to do so,” Elder said.
He was back on the No. 1 tee at Augusta National on Thursday and inspired them again.