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It took a while for the lords of the Masters to finally do the right thing for Lee Elder. Forty-six years after the longtime D.C. resident became the first African American golfer to play in the Masters, the club will honor him at the 2021 tournament.
On Nov. 9, the first day of Masters week at Augusta National, the club chairman, Fred Ridley, announced that 86-year-old Elder will be an honorary starter for the opening round of next year’s event, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to hit ceremonial drives before retiring to the clubhouse.
Nicklaus and Player are honorary starters for life; Elder gets only one swing and one year on the first tee on the first day of the 2021 event. Still, he’s not complaining, even though anyone with a sense of golf history knows it’s about time, and long overdue.
“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream,” Elder told reporters at the club that day. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary 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.”
A native of Texas, Elder lived in D.C. for many years when he played on the PGA Tour, with four victories, and later the senior circuit, with six wins. At one point, starting in 1978, he and his ex-wife, Rose, won the rights from the National Park Service to operate the District’s three public golf courses—Langston, East Potomac, and Rock Creek.
After he played in that memorable 1975 Masters, he was in the field five more times, finishing 17th, his best showing, in 1979. But the club never formally acknowledged his groundbreaking first appearance until last week.
So what took so long?
The private club’s shameful history of racial and gender discrimination explains a lot of it.
In 1967, Charlie Sifford, one of the greatest African American golfers of all time, won the Greater Hartford Open on the PGA Tour. He won the 1969 Los Angeles Open, but both times, then-Masters chairman Clifford Roberts said Sifford did not “meet the club’s qualifications” to play the Masters. That was a total crock, and Sifford never played in the tournament, even though he became the first Black player to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Augusta National did not admit its first Black member until 1990, when another Washingtonian, Gannett executive Ron Townsend, was invited to join. If the club did not add a Black member, it faced the possibility of not being included as an official event on the PGA Tour schedule. In 2012, Augusta National finally admitted its first female members.
Over the years, Elder had been honored by the U.S. Golf Association, the Golf Writers Association of America, the city of Augusta, and other golf organizations for his pioneering role in that ’75 Masters. Five years ago, on the 40th anniversary of that first appearance, it seemed an appropriate time for Augusta National to finally join the crowd. Instead, they chose to honor a dead tree.
On the Wednesday before the 2015 Masters, a display was unveiled of a cross-section slice taken out of Eisenhower’s Tree, the famous loblolly pine near the 17th hole that was felled by an ice storm in the winter of 2014. Then-tournament chairman Billy Payne proudly announced at a press conference that it would be shipped to the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas.
I asked Payne that day if the club had any plans to mark the 40th anniversary of Elder’s historic appearance. He responded that Elder was always welcome at Augusta National, and had even been provided passes for him and his family to attend the event, free of charge.
Five years later, smarter heads prevailed, and Elder will finally be honored. He graciously accepted and said all the right things.
Sifford, one of Elder’s African American contemporaries, had a far different attitude toward the club. Years ago, the Golf Writers Association of America wanted to present him with a lifetime achievement award at the organization’s annual dinner, held in Augusta the Wednesday night before the tournament started. I was a board member at the time and tasked with inviting Sifford to attend.
When I reached him on the phone, he said he was truly honored by the recognition. And then he asked where the dinner was being held. I told him Augusta—not at the club but another facility a few miles away—and his reaction was rather unexpected. He said that he would never set foot anywhere near that town as long as he lived.
Sifford died in 2015 at the age of 92. He never played in the Masters and never had an opportunity to be an honorary starter. Thankfully, Lee Elder will get that chance in April. It’s about damn time.