Lee Elder became entrenched in Masters lore when he competed in 1975.
45 years later, he’s synonymous with the evolution of Augusta National Golf Club.
Elder made history as the first African-American golfer to compete in the Masters. His legacy will be honoured in the 2021 Masters, participating as an Honorary Starter, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
In a year highlighted by pandemic, loss, protest and racial reckoning, the green jackets at Augusta National struck a perfect tone in honouring Elder.
“It was heartwarming,” Elder said in an interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi. “It was a special moment for me. … This will allow me to be a part of something much more than just hitting a ball off the first tee.”
The first Masters tournament occurred in 1934. The event required 41 years before a black golfer graced its hallowed grounds.
It’s no secret Augusta National’s history is permeated with racial undertones and policies. Look no further than the course’s co-founder, Clifford Roberts, who uttered: “As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black.”
So began the racial divide between privileged and marginalized, the haves, and have nots. A microcosm of what occurred in American society for generations.
Even with monumental social change, notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Augusta National still barred black golfers. Until Lee Elder broke the colour barrier.
Eight years earlier, Elder earned a spot on the PGA Tour through Q school. In his rookie season, the Dallas native generated $38,000 earnings, his most notable result coming in a playoff defeat against Jack Nicklaus at the American Golf Classic.
In 1974, Elder won his first PGA Tour event at the Monsanto Open. This qualified Elder into the Masters, a watershed moment for a golf club riddled with a racist past.
However, before the tournament began, Elder received death threats and hate mail, forcing the young golfer to rent two Augusta houses instead of one, so he could migrate between them. Whenever Elder had meals, he was accompanied by a de facto “security detail.”
Such was the case for many African-Americans living in Georgia at that time, subject to incessant prejudice and discrimination.
Elder ended up missing the cut at the 1975 Masters. But the moment reverberates between the towering Georgia pine trees, a reminder to honour those whose legacy shaped the history of this iconic tournament.
Despite Elder’s moment, Augusta National remained attached to its older guidelines. It took until 1990 for African-American members to be admitted and 2012 for women to be a part of the membership.
The rationale for maintaining the status quo? Tradition. Just like the azaleas that bloom every April or the green jacket presentation in Butler Cabin, the leadership at Augusta National clung to the past, refusing to evolve.
Until Fred Ridley became chairman. Since then, without explicitly saying so, Augusta National began the process to transition away from its checkered past. The golf club hosts a Latin America Amateur event, and a Women’s Am the week before the Masters takes place. The club pledged to fund women’s golf through scholarships at an HBCU, with the desire to enhance the sport’s inclusivity and acceptance for women and people of colour.
Chairman Ridley didn’t shy away from asserting that the conversations sparked over the summer, in large part due to George Floyd’s tragic death, led to Elder’s recognition this week.
Lee Elder, the first Black man to compete in the Masters Tournament 45 years ago, is being honored by Augusta National. #themasters
— The Masters (@TheMasters) November 9, 2020
“The courage and commitment of Lee Elder and other trailblazers like him inspired men and women of color to pursue their rightful opportunity to compete and follow their dreams,” Ridley said during a news conference at Augusta National. “But in reality, that opportunity is still elusive for many. We have a long way to go, and we can and we must do more.
For five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods, he supports the decision for Elder to be an Honorary Starter. Woods became the first African-American to win the Masters in 1997.
“We all belong. Such wonderful news to hear from Augusta National in celebration of Lee Elder,” Woods said in a Tweet.
It’s easy to criticize and rebuke Augusta National for not abandoning its traditional roots sooner. But you can’t blame them for trying to evolve.
As Lee Elder sends his ceremonial tee shot onto the green grass of the opening fairway, it marks a long-overdue transition from Augusta National’s roots into a more accepting future.