Lee Elder got his moment in the sun at Augusta, but a marketing ploy by Gary Player's son nearly ruined it

The moment was supposed to be Lee Elder's.

The 86-year-old sat on the first tee at Augusta National on Thursday morning, quietly listening as course chairman Fred Ridley read a short introduction for him, calling him an inspiration and history-maker. He had, at long last, been brought back to be an honorary starter, along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

And there, over his left shoulder, a white-jumpsuit-clad caddy, Player's caddy and son Wayne, not-so-surreptitiously held a black sleeve of golf balls, the sleeve's logo in camera shot, marring what was meant to be a time at long last celebrating a man who received death threats just for playing in the tournament 46 years ago. Everyone else on the tee with Elder stood respectfully behind him.

Gary Player's son Wayne held a sleeve of VeroX golf balls as Lee Elder was honored at The Masters. (Screenshot via Daniel Rapaport)
Gary Player's son Wayne held a sleeve of OnCore golf balls as Lee Elder was honored at The Masters. (Screenshot via Daniel Rapaport)

Elder is the first Black man who was allowed to play in the Masters, a tournament held at a course that steadfastly refuses to join many of us in the 21st century. So intense was the hatred directed his way in the lead-up to the 1975 Masters that Elder rented two houses in Augusta for that week, staying in both, doing his best to keep his whereabouts secret, in case anyone who had threatened to harm was in town to make good on their threat.

He was threatened with death for playing a game. For daring to play a game white people believed, and, if the current makeup of the PGA tour and pretty much every foursome at your nearest course are any indication still believe, is theirs and theirs alone. For being good enough to swing the clubs, not just carry them.

Like so many other Black athletes, Elder had to press on despite slights small and large when he left the comfort of the United Golfers Association, formed for African American golfers when the PGA was explicitly whites-only, and began integrating tournaments.

He played at country clubs that wouldn't let him use the locker room to get dressed, like the one in Pensacola, Florida, where he won the 1974 Monsanto Open and earned a spot in the '75 Masters.

He was turned away by an empty Augusta restaurant and told, "We can't serve you here."

His ball suddenly disappeared from the fairway during a round in Memphis.

A late-night phone call was made to his hotel room, also in Memphis, the city where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, and led to Elder finishing the tournament with a police escort.

What makes Thursday morning's stunt more painful is that Gary Player, who is white, once invited Elder to Player's native South Africa to integrate a tournament there in 1971 in the middle of its apartheid era, going to the country's president to get permission for Elder to play.

Expressing a stunning lack of awareness and tone-deafness, Gary Player said after the ceremony that Elder has "experienced a lot of things that I experienced in my life." Unless Player meant that he and Elder are both golfers who have played a lot of golf, it's impossible to see what "experiences" Player and Elder have in common.

And still Wayne Player (whose time at the Master in 2018 led to a civil lawsuit and an arrest) did what he could to hawk those golf balls, the ones his father not only endorses but also has invested in the company that makes them, taking attention away from Elder's moment in the morning sun.

A representative from OnCore said it did not instruct Player to "have our ball sleeve visible" during the ceremony.

Elder's moment came far too late, with his health such that he couldn't use his driver except as a cane to help him stand to acknowledge the crowd. A moment that a cynic would say came only because of the events of the past 10 months, with America having a so-called racial reckoning, with the attention on trying to achieve equity so strong even Augusta National couldn't ignore it.

Trailblazer or not, surviving 86 years as a Black man in this country makes one a damn hero, to paraphrase Dave Chapelle.

Elder deserved to soak in his moment without incident, without photos and video of it sullied forever by a tasteless attention grab.

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