AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | On that unforgettable Sunday 23 Aprils ago, Lee Elder stood under the giant live oak behind the Augusta National clubhouse and watched as Tiger Woods prepared to finish a Masters victory that felt like it was changing the world.
Clustered among a couple hundred people including a number of club employees who had come out to watch Woods tee off, Elder understood more than most what the moment meant. At times, people were watching Elder watch Woods.
In 1975, Elder stood on that first tee with the world watching him as he became the first African-American to play in the Masters. It was a moment as significant in its way as Woods’ monumental victory in 1997.
Next April, the people will be watching Elder again as he joins Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter at the 2021 Masters.
Club chairman Fred Ridley made the announcement Monday as the first November Masters week began while also detailing the club’s commitment to enhancing golf at Paine College, a historically black college located less than 5 miles from Augusta National.
In addition to honoring Elder on the first tee, Augusta National will fund two Lee Elder scholarships at Paine College, one for a member of the men’s golf team and another for a member of the women’s golf team. Augusta National also will fund the creation of the women’s golf program at Paine, another significant step in the club’s ongoing outreach in the Augusta community and beyond.
Elder belongs on the first tee with Nicklaus and Player because he is that important to the Masters Tournament.
He played his way into the Masters and, in doing so, he played his way into history. Elder took a difficult situation and owned it with his grace, dignity and pride.
Forty-five years later, Elder remains an enormous figure in the evolution of the Masters, his impact gaining richness through the years.
“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream, and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said in a statement. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.
“It also gives me great pride to know that my first Masters appearance continues to make a positive impact on others. Throughout my career, helping young men and women achieve their dreams through education has been a cause close to my heart. I am deeply honored to share a connection with Paine College and these scholarships, which will provide life-changing opportunities for the deserving recipients.”
The honorary starters ceremony at the Masters is more than symbolic. It’s a nod to the history of the club and the tournament as well as a public acknowledgement of the men who’ve written the story of the Masters.
It’s not lost on Ridley and others at the club all that has happened in the country this year regarding the fight for social justice.
“There’s been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity and our question was not so much what we could say but what we could do,” Ridley said. “So I would say that this announcement is in part a call to action in that regard. We have a long relationship with Lee, certainly dating back to 1975 but he’s been our guest almost every year here at the Masters.
“This is just a culmination of that great relationship and an opportunity in these times to recognize him for the pioneer he was, the great citizen that he is and what he’s done for the game of golf, what he’s persevered. Lots of lessons to be learned from that, Lee. Thank you.”
Elder was one of 10 children and was orphaned before his 10th birthday. He worked as a caddie, learned the game and qualified for the 1975 Masters by winning the PGA Tour’s Monsanto Open the previous year.
His appearance in the Masters was both a breakthrough and a reminder of the ongoing struggle Elder faced. Because of threats on his life, Elder rented two homes in Augusta during the Masters.
Though he missed the cut, shooting 74-78, Elder wasn’t finished with the Masters. He played in a total of six Masters with his best finish being a T17 in 1979.
Elder won four PGA Tour events and eight PGA Tour Champions events while also becoming the first Black member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1979.
Next April, when the Masters is back in its familiar spot on golf’s calendar and a fresh year will be unfolding, Lee Elder will be on the first tee again at Augusta National.
We will watch him again while knowing – again – he belongs there.
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