Honorary starters Lee Elder, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player launch Masters 2021
AUGUSTA, Ga (WRDW/WAGT) - Golf legend Lee Elder joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the first tee of the 2021 Masters as honorary starters this morning.
The tradition began in 1963 and continues to this day.
Elder was the first Black man to compete in the Masters Tournament when he teed it up in 1975.
The honorary start took place at 7:45 a.m.
The applause started when Elder’s golf cart began moving toward the first tee. It only got louder when he arrived and slowly made his way to his seat.
And moments later, Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said words 46 years in the making.
“Lee, it is my privilege to say, you have the honors,” Ridley said.
That prompted the first roar of the 2021 Masters Tournament.
Elder rose from his chair, hoisted his driver skyward for a moment, then nodded, smiled and waved in appreciation of the hundreds of people who crowded around the first tee to see history happen.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said.
Player and Nicklaus each took a swing, as is tradition, knocking drives onto the first fairway. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Player’s first Masters win, the first by an international player, and the 35th anniversary of Nicklaus’ sixth and final victory.
Elder did not tee off, though just as was the case in 1975, his presence simply was the much bigger story. He became the 10th past player to be part of the honorary starter ceremony, and fittingly, the first Black man to join that list.
“My heart is very soft, not heavy soft,” Elder said. “Soft because of the wonderful things I have encountered since arriving here on Monday and being able to see some of the great friends I have made over the past years, especially like these two gentlemen here. We have competed against each other and we have certainly enjoyed a lot of pleasant moments and I just want to say thank you so very much to have me here. It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much.”
Player has long been familiar with Elder’s story and, at times, his struggles. He invited Elder to play in South Africa, Player’s homeland, in 1969.
“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. “Quite sad.”
They made it happen, and Elder’s story kept evolving from there. He became the first Black man to play for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup in 1979, and doors slowly kept opening within the game. Augusta National made Ron Townsend its first Black member in 1990, seven years before a skinny kid named Tiger Woods won the first of his five Masters titles.
Elder -- who grew up in Dallas and got into the game as a caddie, not a player, since that essentially was the only avenue Black people had into the game at that time -- blazed the trail. He was back at Augusta National for Woods’ first win in 1997. The first Black man to play the Masters was simply not going to miss seeing the first Black man winning the tournament.
“It always amazed me that presidents of the United States would be giving these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here was a man that changed the lives and changed and put a spoke in the wheel of segregation in South Africa and was never given the awards that he actually duly deserved,” Player said.
Past Masters champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson, both in their green jackets, made sure that they were there for the ceremony, standing on the back of the tee box. So was Cameron Champ, one of four players of Black heritage on the PGA Tour.
“It’s a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it,” Elder said.
Added Nicklaus: “It was long overdue.”
Elder knew Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier. He was close with Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats throughout his career, particularly as he approached what was Babe Ruth’s home run record. Aaron broke that record April 8, 1974; 12 days later, Elder won what was then called the Monsanto Open to qualify for the following year’s Masters.
Elder sat in Aaron’s office with the Home Run King a few months ago, shortly before Aaron’s death, sharing memories.
“We talked about several things ... our sports, our particular sport, and the involvement that we felt that we could help other young Blacks that was coming up behind us,” Elder said. “And 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.”
Earlier this week
On Tuesday, Elder received an honorary doctorate from Paine College in Augusta.
Back in 1975 when Elder became the first African American to play in the Masters, Paine College opened the doors to him and his entourage, and today they opened the doors to him once again.
“I just want to say thank you so very much for this great honor, I appreciate it,” Elder said.
Before he had a doctorate degree, Elder entered the golf world the same way many other young black men did around the 1950s, as a caddy.
“I mean, African Americans have always loved golf. Now golf has not always been good to African Americans, it has not always returned that kind of affection,” said Georgia Power CEO Chris Womack. “You never thought you would see an African American play at Augusta National in the Masters.”
After winning his first PGA tournament in 1975, Elder became the first African American to break the color barrier at the Masters.
“And what a proud moment it was to see Lee Elder tee off at Augusta National and walk through the fairways of Augusta National golf course,” Womack said.
Along with presenting Elder with an honorary doctorate degree for lifetime achievement, with the help of Augusta National, Paine College will be launching two scholarships in his name and starting a women’s golf team.
“It shows the fruits of and the returns of all the hard work that lee elder has put into this great sport,” Womack said.
Surrounded by Paine alumni, city leaders and family, the now Dr. Elder vowed to continue the push for diversity in the Masters.
“And the wonderful things I know that we will undertake as we go forward here at Paine College,” he said.
Eder was also presented the mayor’s Legacy Award by Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis Jr., and Davis officially declared April 6 as Lee Elder Day in the city of Augusta.
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