AUGUSTA, Ga. – As the sun rose over his shoulders, Lee Elder was introduced to several hundred spectators on the first tee of the Masters tournament Thursday morning. Forty-six years earlier, at roughly the same location in Augusta National, Elder had become the first black man to participate in the tournament.
“I was just so nervous,” Elder said, remembering the opening moments of his historic 1975 appearance.
But on Thursday morning, feeling good, Elder smiled and joined golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the first black player to be inducted into a decade-long Masters tradition: a celebration of the honorary starters teeing off the first ceremonial strokes of another Masters.
The 86-year-old Elder sat in a white patio chair on the first tee next to about 20 family members, friends, and black PGA golf professionals dressed in formal attire and lined up in a regal row. Recent mobility issues would prevent Elder from getting a shot on Thursday, but he was greeted first by Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Fred S. Ridley.
“Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history again – not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character,” said Ridley.
Using the golf language reserved for a player who has earned the right to tee off first through leadership, Ridley added, “Lee, it’s my privilege to say you have the honor.”
Elder pushed on the armrests of his chair to rise, but swayed as he tried to stand until the player stepped forward and put a hand under Elder’s left arm to lift him into an upright position. Addressing the surrounding ward, Elder nodded a wave of his left hand, then raised the driver in his right hand as if to respond to the ovation that lasted for 40 seconds. Elder returned to his seat grinning.
The atmosphere at the 85th Masters this week was at times tense as players and tournament officials were asked about the new, restrictive Georgia electoral law that plagues the state. While Elder was invited to the 1975 tournament – many years after he and other black players qualified to play – Augusta was National did not admit his first black member until 1990 and his first wife until 2012.
Elder’s role in the first tee ceremony, considered long overdue, has been eagerly awaited since it was announced last year and then delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The symbolism of its appearance has not been lost at a time when the country is undergoing a racist reckoning. But for a long moment on Thursday, the focus seemed to be on wrapping Elder in tribute.
At a press conference shortly after the first tee ceremony, Player recalled having invited Elder in 1969 play in his home country South Africa.
“It’s pretty sad to think that in those days with South Africa’s policy of segregation, I had to go to my president to get permission for Lee Elder to play in our PGA,” said Player, adding, “I became a traitor called. “
The player remembered Elder receiving a loud standing ovation.
“We then went to other venues,” said the player. “You can imagine, back in history, how encouraging it was for a young black boy to see this champion play.”
Elder recalled that in 1966 he had won 21 of 23 events on the United Golf Association Tour, a series of tournaments for African American golfers at a time when they were regularly banned from other top professional golf events. The next year he competed for the PGA Tour – he was required to produce a copy of a $ 6,500 bank statement balance – and was in a playoff in 1969 to win the prestigious Firestone Open in Nicklaus’ home state, Ohio.
As Elder was telling the story on Thursday, Nicklaus, who was sitting next to him on the podium at the press conference, put in, “I robbed you, didn’t I?”
Elder turned to Nicklaus.
Nicklaus stated that he did three putts over 35 feet to keep the playoffs alive. Eventually Nicklaus prevailed to win the tournament.
“He was lucky,” said Elder, suppressing a giggle, even a giggle, to no avail.
He was having a good day.
“It was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever seen or been involved in,” he said of the first tee-off ceremony on Thursday.
Elder paused to adjust his glasses and added, “My heart is very soft this morning, not hard soft, but soft because of the wonderful things I have come across. It’s a great honor and I really appreciate it. “