Lee Elder was the star turn of the Honorary Starters in an historic and emotional affair on the iconic 1st tee
Forty-six years ago Lee Elder broke new and overdue ground when he became the first Black player to tee it up in the Masters. On Thursday morning he joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as one of the Honorary Starters in a very welcome and popular move by the club.
This is in stark contrast to the arguments taking place in the US State of Georgia where Augusta is located. Less than a week ago a bill was signed into law by Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp.
It has been criticised by voting rights advocates as it restricts ballot access by placing limits on absentee voting, shortens periods for run-off elections and forbids the practice of giving food and water to voters waiting to cast ballots.
The Republicans, who control the state’s government, say it expands access and increases election security.
In protest the Major League Baseball has moved its All Stars Game from Atlanta and it’s been a regular topic when speaking with the players this week.
Cameron Champ, one of a few Black players in the field and who was behind the 1st tee for the opening shots, spoke to reporters earlier in the week.
“I think a lot of people are very disappointed to see that. It really targets certain black communities and makes it harder to vote, which, to me, it’s everyone’s right to vote. For me to see that, it’s very shocking. Obviously, with MLB moving the All-Star Game was a big statement. I know there’s a bunch of other organisations and companies that have moved things. Again, this is a prestigious event, and I know there’s a lot going on with it and the people involved with it.”
Champ will have been as emotional as most as Elder, who wasn’t able to hit a ball, was very much part of the occasion for the first time. The 86-year-old would play in six Masters, with a best finish of 17th in 1979, and he would receive a notably lengthy and emotional round of applause.
In November the club created two scholarships to student-athletes, one for the men’s golf team and one for the women’s golf team at Paine College in Georgia, a nationally renowned Black institute of higher learning and the scholarships will forever be in the honour of Elder. And by the 1st tee, supporting Elder were a number of students from Paine College as well as a number of Black PGA professionals.
“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in. It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National. My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday and being able to see some of the great friends that I have made over the past years, especially like these two gentlemen that are here,” explained Elder.
Of his 1975 debut Elder’s strongest memory was of how nervous he was going to that same 1st tee.
“But I was fortunate enough to play with a gentleman that I had known for quite some time, Gene Littler. We had sat in the shop for just a few minutes to talk, and we was walking out to the 1st tee, and he said to me, “Lee, I know this is going to be a hard day for you, but I just want you to know that if I get in your way, just shout at me because I have a tendency to do those things.”
“I had a wonderful round that day because to me it was not a golf course that I was familiar with, and I was very happy to shoot the 74 I did. But what I remember so much was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations. I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I’ll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.
“But I still had to concentrate on the game of golf, which was hard for me to do. I think that on several occasions, as I thought about where I was at and where I had came from, was certainly something that was a reminder, a reminder of, hey, you’ve worked for this, you have now achieved it. Just relax and enjoy and enjoy the moment. Your life is not going to depend on how well you play. You don’t have to be worrying about carrying anyone on your shoulder. You’re there just on your own. This was a goal that you had set for yourself. You have achieved it, so now relax and play some golf and just enjoy the moment.”