Lee Elder joins Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player to open Masters

AUGUSTA, GA. As the sun shone over the tall pines of Georgia on Thursday morning, Lee Elder joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters on the first tee of the Augusta National Golf Club for the 85th edition of the Masters.

Elder, 86, was driven to tee # 1 in a cart. Using a stick to walk and an oxygen tank to help him breathe, Elder didn’t hit a ceremonial tee shot like the former champions.

It didn’t matter.

“I really want to thank you for this wonderful opportunity,” Elder said at a news conference shortly afterward. “For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences I have ever had or been involved in. It is definitely something I will cherish for the rest of my life because I loved being to Augusta National and I play here the times I’ve played here with many of my friends who are members here. “

At the pandemic-delayed Masters in November, Augusta National Golf Club Chairman 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 donated two scholarships to Paine College, a nearby HBCU, on behalf of Elder.

“Lee Elder is the first black man to enter the Masters, paving a path that will inspire the game of golf and future generations of players,” Ridley said Thursday morning, introducing Elder to a gallery of a few hundred Patterns.

Former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, a black golfer competing in his second Masters this week, were close. So did several black club professionals who were invited to the ceremony.

“They were no doubt inspired by Lee Elder and his message that golf is for everyone,” said Ridley. Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history again, not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character.

“Lee, it is my privilege to say, ‘You have the honor.'”

Elder, who grew up in Dallas, didn’t play an 18-hole round until he was 16. He worked in professional shops and locker rooms and was a caddy on golf courses that had been segregated in the 1950s. After serving in the military, he joined the United Golf Association, a tour for black players, winning 18 out of 22 events on one trajectory.

In 1968, after saving the $ 6,500 it took to participate in the PGA Tour, Elder earned his tour card by finishing ninth in Q school. During his rookie season, he lost to Nicklaus in a playoff at the American Golf Classic, falling on the fifth hole of sudden death at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.

“I think that really boosted my career,” Elder said. “I know I started to blossom pretty well after that, and I think it really changed my game because I knew if I could play five more holes with the amazing Jack Nicklaus, I knew I had gained weight and I would be able to play on the tour. “

Elder also has a close relationship with Player, a three-time Masters champion from South Africa. In 1971, Player invited Elder to play in the South African PGA Championship in Johannesburg. Elder agreed to deal, but only if the South African government promised not to be subject to apartheid.

“It’s kind of sad to think that in those days, with South Africa’s segregation policy, I had to go to my president to allow Lee Elder to come and play in our PGA,” said Player.

Elder won the Nigerian Open in 1971 while visiting Africa.

You can imagine at that time in history how encouraging it was for a young black boy to see this champion play, and when Tiger Woods came along it was just absolutely fantastic for the people of any color all over the place. world, ”Player said.

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 in the clubhouse, instead of on 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 hadn’t played because Lee had certainly played well enough, and he had Teddy Rhodes for him and he had Charlie Sifford for him and guys who could’ve played. Invited to the Masters, “Nicklaus said.” I thought it should have been a long time before he was finally invited. “

When Elder arrived in Augusta for the 1975 Masters, he rented two houses for security reasons. He and his friends didn’t get a meal at a restaurant because of their race, so the president of Paine College arranged for the school’s cafeteria workers to cook for him for the rest of the week.

“The strongest memory I remember was how nervous I got to the first tee,” Elder said. “But what I remember so well about my first visit here was the fact that at every tee and every green I walked on I got great ovations. I think when you get something like that, it helps to settle down [you] down. I’ll tell you I was so nervous when we started playing that it took me a few holes to calm down somewhat. “

Elder missed the cut by 4 strokes. Nicklaus won his fifth green jacket by beating Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf by 1.

Elder played in the Masters six times from 1975 to 1981 and made the cut three times. His best finish was a draw for 17th in 1979.

“I certainly hope that the things I have done have inspired many young black players and that they will continue with it,” said Elder.

He was back on the No. 1 tee at Augusta National on Thursday and inspired them again.