AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a moment for Lee Elder that he would later say rivaled anything he’s experienced in his accomplished golf career that includes four PGA Tour victories and eight more wins on the senior circuit.
With the morning sun rising over Augusta National as the 85th Masters was about to start, the 86-year-old Elder, the first Black man ever to compete in a Masters, joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the Honorary Starters Thursday.
Nicklaus has won six green jackets. Player has won three of them. Yet Elder’s place in Masters history is just as significant — despite the fact that he never won a jacket, had a best finish of tied for 17th and missed the cut three of the six times he played.
Elder, who’s battling some health issues and was hooked up to an oxygen tank, was driven to the first tee on a golf cart and helped to a chair on the first tee. Still, he waved to the gallery triumphantly as he received applause before Player and then Nicklaus sent their respective ceremonial first tee shots down the first fairway.
It was a far different experience for the man who received death threats as he was about to break the Masters color barrier in ’75.
“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,” Elder said Thursday after the ceremony on the first tee. “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.”
Seeing Elder there with Nicklaus and Player on that first tee was a sight to cherish for everyone there to witness it. It felt like a powerful moment, because it was.
Elder famously returned to Augusta from Florida for the ’97 final round when it was clear Tiger Woods was about to become the first Black man ever to win a Masters.
“I made history here, and I came here today to see more history made,” Elder told reporters that day. “After today, no one will turn their head when a Black man walks to the first tee.”
Elder cried that day because he saw a similar scene unfold as Woods was about to win from when he first played in ’75 — with many of the Black Augusta National employees emerging from the clubhouse to witness the moment.
For Elder’s moment in the sun on Thursday, a contingent of patrons wearing green ballcaps with the number “1975″ on them to commemorate Elder’s momentous first Masters year stood off to the side of the tee box.
Former U.S. Secretary of State and current Augusta member Condoleezza Rice beamed as she stood and watched the historic moment.
“It was fantastic,” Rice said. “What a moment.”
Among the players in the tournament field who turned up for the early-morning moment were Phil Mickelson, whose first-round tee time wasn’t until more than five hours later at 1:15 p.m., Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, the only African-American player in the field.
Elder said he vividly recalls that ’75 Masters and how he felt.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Nicklaus recalled being “kind of astonished when that was announced that a Black player hadn’t played” the Masters before Elder became the first.
“He had Teddy Rhodes before him and he had Charlie Sifford before him and fellows who could well have played, been invited to the Masters,” Nicklaus said. “I thought it was long overdue when he finally got invited.”