AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of the things people come to the Masters for is the hope to witness something special. A remarkable shot or moment that finds you.
Then there are moments you know going in will be special. Historic. Unforgettable. One of those moments happened Thursday morning, when 86-year old Lee Elder joined 85-year old Gary Player and 81-year old Jack Nicklaus as a Masters honorary starter.
The Masters and its home, Augusta National Golf Club, have long been criticized for being too late to the party on many important issues. For not having a Black golfer participate in the tournament until Elder played for the first time in 1975. For not having a Black member until 1990. Not to have female members until 2012. And this week, not to react strongly enough, in the opinion of some, to Georgia’s highly controversial new voting law.
All these things can be true. So can be the act of righting a wrong. And paying tribute to the past. That’s what happened when Elder went to the first tee for the ceremonial start of the Masters.
After major league baseball took its All-Star Game and moved it to Denver in protest of the Georgia voting law, there were calls for the Masters to be moved or boycotted. But the tournament obviously remained here, where it is always played.
Masters and Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley spoke Wednesday of the collateral consequences of boycotts or changing venues. One of them would have been denying Elder this singular moment of golfing glory. A much-deserved moment to bask in the sun of the golf world with an honor that Elder has repeatedly said meant the most to him since he was told of it November. A moment that came with the delightful coincidence of sports history. It was 47 years to the day after the late Hank Aaron, Elder’s friend and fellow trailblazer, hit his 715th home run in Atlanta to break Babe Ruth’s record.
“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 in a news conference moments after the ceremony. “It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here. It's a great honor, and I cherish it very much.”
It was a beautiful morning for such a moment, cool, dry, with just a few wisps of high clouds. Absolutely nothing meteorologically that would threaten the event.
Elder came down from the clubhouse first, driven the short distance to the tee in a golf cart through throngs of patrons. Some of them, like actor and Atlanta native Chris Tucker, wore green caps with “1975,” Elder’s first Masters year, stitched across the front and Elder’s own words “Stay the course,” on the sides. According to the Masters, the hat was designed by a company owned by Golden State Warriors guard and devout golfer Steph Curry. He plans to wear one when he takes the court for Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards.
Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson were there, too, standing beside the tee in their green jackets.
“Lee Elder was the first Black man to compete in the Masters, and in doing so, he blazed a trail that inspired the game of golf and future generations of players,” Ridley said on the first tee. “We are delighted today to have a number of Black golfers who are proud members of the PGA of America. They were undoubtedly inspired by Lee Elder and his message that the game of golf belongs to everyone.
“Today, Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more. Not with a drive but with his presence, strength and character. Lee, it is my privilege to say, ‘You have the honors.’ ”
Player and Nicklaus hit tee shots while Elder did not. There was that fear that Elder, frail and requiring oxygen, might not actually hit a ball, and unfortunately that turned out to be the case. But the significance of the moment was not diminished. He stood and acknowledged the hearty applause. He did so again as he rode off after the honorary starters took photos together.
Player grew up in an apartheid South Africa he defended before disavowing it in later life. The three-time Masters winner also championed Elder as an honorary starter. Times, people, and places do change.
“He got the Bobby Jones Award” in 2019, Player said, a reference to the USGA’s highest honor. “Jack and I were there, and (see him) be given this award here today, which he deserves so richly.”
Elder remembered his first round Masters round back on April 10, 1975. Like Aaron, Elder received death threats. While he said he felt safe once he entered the Augusta National grounds, he was still nervous. He said his playing partner that day, Gene Littler, tried to take his mind off things by telling Elder to yell at him if he got in his way.
“What I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations,” Elder said. “I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle you down.”
The tremendous ovations were back Thursday. For Elder, for the Masters, there were few days that were ever better.