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AUGUSTA, Ga. – The ovation began as Lee Elder approached the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club in a golf cart and reached a crescendo as he stood with the help of a cane and waved his right hand.
“Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said. “Lee, you have the honors.”
Elder, 86, who uses oxygen to assist his breathing, had a full set of golf clubs at his disposal and used a driver for balance, but he was unfit to hit a shot. When he took a seat to another round of applause, he said, “That feels good.”
“I was so afraid that was going to happen,” his wife, Sharon said. “He just didn’t feel well at all this morning.”
None of that mattered. This moment – long overdue – belonged to Elder, a trailblazer in every sense of the word, and he soaked it all in.
“I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said. “It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National.”
They all came to see Elder in his mint-green shirt on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club one more time. Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Charles Coody and Nick Faldo and fellow contestants Corey Conners and Cameron Champ, one of the few minorities on the PGA Tour and lone Black representative in the 88-man field.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve come to this,” Faldo said of the honorary starter ceremony. “But I didn’t want to miss this one.”
Neither did Melvin, a worker at the Augusta National clubhouse with his uniform and nameplate intact, as did NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann and his fellow Augusta National member Condoleezza Rice, both looking resplendent in their green jackets. Rice, for one, begged out of a potential conflict to be there.
“I texted that I’d like to be on the tee,” Rice said.
Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus were there, too, in their traditional roles as First Tee Starters, but they were overshadowed by Elder, who learned to play the game crosshanded as a caddie in rural Dallas. Ted Rhodes, another black pioneer who served as a mentor, changed him to a traditional grip and he’d go on to dominate the United Golf Association, the tour for blacks in the era of the PGA’s Caucasian-only rule, before earning his PGA Tour card in 1967, winning four times and qualifying for the 1979 U.S. Ryder Cup team.
Honorary starter Gary Player greets Jack Nicklaus at the 1st tee during the first round of The Masters. (Photo: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports)
“I wanted it so badly,” Elder once told Golfweek. “When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn’t been integrated.”
Two years before Elder qualified, a group of politicians urged Augusta National to invite Elder, but their request was rebuffed.
“We are a little surprised as well as being flattered that 18 Congressmen should be able to take time out to help us operate a golf tournament,” Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts wrote. “…We feel certain someone has misinformed the distinguished lawmakers, because there is not and never has been player discrimination, subtle or otherwise.”
Elder earned his way to the Masters holing an 18-foot birdie putt on the fourth playoff to beat Peter Oosterhuis in the 1974 Monsanto Open at Pensacola Country Club in Florida, at the same course where a few years earlier he had been refused entrance into the clubhouse and changed his shoes in the parking lot. To understand the world at the time it is important to remember that Elder was whisked away to the clubhouse, and for good reason.
“I didn’t know why until we got in the car and they said they had received calls that if I won they were going to kill me,” Elder said. “We got so many calls like that.”
During the week of the 1975 Masters, he bounced between two rental houses just to be safe, and stayed up late with friends playing cards and trying to wrap his head around what it meant to break the color barrier at the Masters.
“My friend said to me, ‘Do you really know how much you’ve done?’ I said, ‘I feel like I do. I feel like I made a contribution to society.’ They said, ‘No, my man, you’re breaking the barrier that had been in existence for a long time,’ ” Elder recalled.
On a misty morning, 36 years ago Elder wore green pants, a green shirt and a green sweater. He was asked if he’d like a rainsuit. “And mess up this pretty green?” Elder said.
What he remembered most from that fateful day when he shot 74 during his Masters debut wasn’t all that different from the response he experienced one more time today.
“Every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations,” he said. “I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I’ll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.”
All these years later, Nicklaus remembers being “astonished” that a Black player hadn’t played in the Masters yet, given the talent of the likes of Rhodes, Pete Brown and Charlie Sifford, and that Elder would be the first.
“I thought it was long overdue when he finally got invited,” Nicklaus.
So was this celebration of Elder.