AUGUSTA, Ga. — As the sun peeked over the tall Georgia pines on Thursday morning, Lee Elder joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club for the 85th edition of the Masters.
Elder, 86, was driven to the No. 1 tee in a cart. Using a cane 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 certainly want to say thank you so very much for this great opportunity,” Elder said during a news conference shortly after. “For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in. It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here the times that I have played here with many of my friends that 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 endowed two scholarships at Paine College, a nearby HBCU, in Elder’s name.
“Lee Elder is the first Black man to compete in the Masters, and in doing so blazed a trail that will inspire the game of golf and future generations of players,” Ridley said Thursday morning, while introducing Elder to a gallery of a few hundred patrons.
Former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, a Black golfer competing in his second Masters this week, stood close by. So did several Black club professionals who had been 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 will inspire us and make history once more, not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character.
“Lee, it is my privilege to say, ‘You have the honors.'”
Elder, who grew up in Dallas, didn’t play a round of 18 holes until he was 16. He worked in pro shops and locker rooms and caddied at golf courses that were segregated during the 1950s. After serving in the Army, he joined the United Golf Association, a tour for Black players, winning 18 of 22 events during one stretch.
In 1968, after saving the $6,500 required to join 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, falling on the fifth hole of sudden death at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
“I think that really prompted my career,” Elder said. “I know after that I began to blossom pretty well, and I think that what happened is that it really changed my game because I knew that if I could play five extra holes with the great Jack Nicklaus, I knew that I had arrived and that I could play on the tour.”
Elder also has 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. Elder agreed to go, but only if the South African government promised he wouldn’t be subjected to apartheid.
“It’s quite sad to think that in those days, with the segregation policy that South Africa had, that I had to go to my president and get permission for Lee Elder to come and play in our PGA,” Player said.
Elder won the 1971 Nigerian Open while visiting Africa.
“You can imagine at that time in history how encouraging it was for a young Black boy to see this champion playing, and then of course with Tiger Woods coming on, it was just absolutely fantastic for the people of any color around the world,” Player said.
Elder qualified for the Masters by winning the 1974 Pensacola Open for his first PGA Tour victory. Because of death threats, the trophy ceremony took place inside 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 kind of astonished when that was announced, that a Black player hadn’t played because Lee had certainly played well enough, and he had Teddy Rhodes before him and he had Charlie Sifford before him and fellows who could well have played, been invited to the Masters,” Nicklaus said. “I thought it was long overdue when he finally got invited.”
When Elder arrived in Augusta for the 1975 Masters, he rented two houses because of safety concerns. He and his friends were denied 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 the rest of the week.
“The strongest memory as I recall was how nervous I was going to the first tee,” Elder said. “But what I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations. I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle [you] down. I’ll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.”
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, making the cut three times. His best finish was a tie for 17th in 1979.
“I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue on with it,” Elder said.
He was back on the No. 1 tee at Augusta National on Thursday, inspiring them once again.