AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jeff Champ was watching his son Cameron at Amen Corner, and talking about his own father, Mack, and how the evils of racism can dramatically change an African-American family’s story from one generation to the next. Mack Champ was serving overseas in the Air Force in the 1960s when he married a white woman from Denmark, and when he decided he wanted to return to his home state of Texas.
Only Texas law banned interracial marriage at the time, forcing the Champs to settle in California.
“So things that happened that far away still affect you today,” Jeff Champ, a former Baltimore Orioles minor leaguer, said as he eyed Cameron play the 12th hole at the Masters. “My father could go to jail if he walked off the base with his wife in those days. So there’s a high probability if my father went back to Texas, we would’ve never made it to California.”
All these years later, the Champs found a way to make it from Sacramento to Augusta National on Thursday, when the only black player in the field, 25-year-old Cameron Champ, attended the 7:45 a.m. ceremony honoring Lee Elder, who became the first black player to compete in the Masters in 1975. Champ was out there with famous Masters winners the likes of Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo and Bubba Watson, and famous non-winners the likes of Greg Norman, to pay tribute to the 86-year-old Elder, who joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters.
Of greater consequence, the two-time PGA Tour winner was out there with his father Jeff, who wouldn’t have missed this moment for the world.
“To see [Elder] pull in there and finally be honored,” he said “it gave me tears. It’s a little late, but it’s never too late.”
A little more than 90 minutes after the ceremony, Jeff Champ’s son started a round that would end at even-par 72. He sank a sweet birdie putt at the 16th that compelled his old man to shout, “Yeah, bay-beeee,” and then made a huge par-saver at the 18th. But even as the game’s signature event got underway, neither father nor son wanted to talk about golf as much as they wanted to talk about Elder’s inspiration, and about Cameron’s decision to use his Masters platform to speak about the racial and social inequities of the day.
Earlier in the week, Champ said he’d decided last year to start speaking his mind about issues impacting people of color. He said he believes Georgia’s new voting law “really targets certain black communities” and called its impact “very shocking.” Champ spoke of writing the names of Breonna Taylor and Jacob Blake on his shoes at last summer’s BMW Championship, and of three people on the range who admitted they were unfamiliar with Taylor and Blake, proving, he said, “the point of why I’m doing it.”
This has not been easy for Champ, whose mother, Lisa, a white woman, described some of the social media reaction as “pretty nasty.” Given that there is often a public price to pay for speaking from the heart, Jeff Champ said he is proud that their normally reserved son was willing to pay it to take racism head on.
“This is not basketball. This is golf,” Jeff said. “This is a whole different scenery, different people watching, observing. If Cameron is not speaking out, there’s nobody speaking out on this, and the golf world isn’t going to hear about it.”
Cameron Champ said that it meant everything to witness Thursday’s historic ceremony, and that Elder reminded him of his late grandfather Mack, who long ago taught him how to hit a golf ball, and how to hit it over the roof of ol’ Mack’s house. Decades before his grandson enrolled at Texas A&M, Mack had been denied service in a restaurant in A&M’s hometown, College Station, leaving a lasting and painful mark.
Another reason Cameron said he would rather make a meaningful difference in the world than win the Masters.
“I’m still figuring out my true identity as a man, to be honest,” he said. “I’m still 25. I’m still young, just got married and … the more I succeed in golf, the more I’m able to do for others. So for me, that’s what I’m really striving for, to be honest.
“It’s just about helping others as much as I can. … It’s just giving the next kid that opportunity.”
At Amen Corner Thursday, it felt appropriate to say Amen to that.