Why adding Lee Elder to a Masters tradition is so meaningful
AUGUSTA, Ga. — A guy’s gotta eat and on Monday night, and at an Italian restaurant near the course, Lee Elder was doing just that. He wrapped things up with an XXL piece of carrot cake. It was a big day. Not for him. For us. This is the moment — the year, the decade, the era — of our reckoning.
We can go deeper into our custom-made holes, lined with 401k wealth, or we can sign up to become part of the family of man. Augusta National, in making a symbolic but splendid statement at high noon on Monday, made a nod in the direction to family of man. The club, with all its history, invited Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in the Masters, to be one of the three honorary starters at the April 2021 Masters, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Elder could have said no. He said yes, just as he said yes to Gary Player, when, in 1971, Player helped find a path for Elder to play in the 1971 South Africa PGA Championship. As Player told me the story recently, he had to petition John Vorster, South Africa’s prime minister, to make it happen. The laws of apartheid required segregated everything. Player will take that chapter of his life to his grave. His pride in it is immense.
Player, Elder and Nicklaus are not young men. Player doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere soon, but he did turn 85 this month. (I saw him a while back at his daughter’s home in a distant Philadelphia suburb and Player talked all through a plank he was doing, his exposed elbows on rough cement.) Elder is 86 and he looks oddly robust and frail at the same time. Nicklaus is 80 and sharp, and he endured Covid-19 without incident, but he’s not playing best-of-five tennis anytime soon. We’d do well to enjoy this gathering of golfing men while we can.
But we can take something from it forever, and if you want to be narrow and specific about it, there’s nothing wrong with that. Elder’s presence on that 1st tee next April will be an important symbol of what people can do in this game if they have the chance to play it. Elder, in his Washington, D.C., boyhood, had the chance to play it. There were affordable public courses where Black golfers were welcome. He liked golf, liked the action, and he got good. By which I mean, he was a damn good player for a lot of years. He made a living and then some on the Tour and the senior tour.
Do you think the world would be a better place if more people played golf? I’d like to ask Fred Ridley that question. Augusta National has shown a commitment to growing the game in every possible direction. Why is that important to the club? My guess is that the club believes what many of us do: that the game teaches humility, honesty and civility. It’s both social and solitary. Also, it’s a great game for gambling, for those of us who like to.
Elder loved to gamble. In 1987, I was covering a senior event outside Philadelphia. Chi Chi Rodriguez, the great Puerto Rican golfer, won the event with a final-round 63. Elder shot a Sunday 70, in the last group, to finish a shot behind him. In that era, they would play some team events together, calling themselves the Rainbow Coalition. Surely Chi Chi’s phrase. He was a showman.
Another reporter and I tracked down Elder in the clubhouse. He said, “I felt a 69 or a 70 would win the golf tournament. But what can you do when a man shoots 63?”
He was eating a hamburger and watching the Preakness. I don’t know if Alysheba, the winner, was his horse or not. He’s always had kind of a poker face. The happiest I ever recall seeing him was at the 1997 Masters, when Tiger Woods won, at age 21, by 12 shots. My memory is that Earl Woods got Elder there, that it was important to Earl for Elder to see Tiger make this bit of sporting and social history. But the bigger truth is that Elder got himself to every Masters he ever attended. To that first one in 1975. To the ’97 Masters. To the 2021 Masters.
I told the young server at Oliviana’s that, long before she was born, Elder was the first Black man to play in the Masters.
“I’m gonna have to get his picture!” she said.
For a moment I wished I hadn’t said anything. I’ve seen Elder be grumpy.
A little later I asked her how it went.
“Great,” she said. “He was super-nice.”
Now she can tell Elder’s story, too, the story about the first Black man to play in the Masters. Come April, millions more will know it, too.