Emotional scene as Lee Elder makes history at Masters’ ceremonial tee shots

lee elder

Lee Elder, with Jack Nicklaus, became the first Black man to serve as an honorary starter at the Masters.

Stephen Denton

AUGUSTA, Ga. — From a distance, it was business as usual at the Masters’ ceremonial opening tee shots early Thursday morning.

A large crowd gathered near the first tee box as the first rays of sun peeked over the trees behind the clubhouse. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus walked to the tee together, flanked by two of their granddaughters. Green jacket-wearers mingled through the masses and shared stories in the minutes leading up to the 7:40 a.m. start.

Up close, though, it was obvious something special was happening.

By 7:20, the crowd closest to the tee box stood five deep in some areas — by far the largest gathering seen through three days among the pandemic-reduced crowds. A security detail spanning about 20 people was fanned out underneath the large oak tree outside the clubhouse, appearing to protect a group of VIP guests. Behind the tee, Phil Mickelson made his first appearance at the ceremony in several years, donning a green jacket and with his trusty thermos in hand, alongside Bubba Watson.

In a roped-off area next to the tee box, a group of roughly 50 wore green hats with “1975” embroidered on the front, and “Stay The Course” on the side. The group consisted of largely Black men and women, many of whom had made the trek to Augusta for this very moment.

They were here to see Lee Elder, who 46 years ago became the first Black man to compete in the Masters. On Thursday morning, Elder, who is 86, completed another Masters first when he became the first Black golfer to serve as an honorary starter at the event. The hats, which were designed, distributed and paid for by NBA star Steph Curry, commemorated this important bit of history.

“What this individual did, what Lee did in 1975 was extremely significant, he opened so many doors for the professionals here today,” said James E. Williams Jr., a patron from East St. Louis, Ill., adorning a signed “1975” hat. “But also for the interest in golf among all people in America. He was the first one, so it’s important to celebrate this moment.”

Lee Elder and Fred Ridley embrace.

Getty

Shortly after 7:30, a current of electricity rippled through the crowd. Elder appeared on his cart in a sea foam green shirt. The crowd applauded.

Elder, whose health has him on oxygen and unable to hit a tee shot, moved gingerly out of the cart. But that was no matter to those in attendance, who pushed against the ropes toward Elder. The golfer responded with a thumbs up.

The ceremony lasted only a couple of minutes and resulted in a pair of fairways found by Nicklaus and Player. For Elder, the memory will last much longer than that.

“I certainly want to say thank you so very much for this great opportunity,” Elder said in a press conference afterward. “For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in.”

Inside the ropes, the feeling was shared.

“A very historic moment for me,” Player said. “It always amazed me that presidents of the United States would be giving these different awards to athletes for their athletic prowess, and here was a man that changed the lives and changed and put a spoke in the wheel of segregation in South Africa and was never given the awards that he actually duly deserved. To be bestowed upon this award which he deserves so richly, when you do something for the human being, and for freedom, it was a very historic moment for me.”

“Well, I think that having Lee there was the right thing to do, a nice thing to do,” Nicklaus added with a laugh. “I told Lee, if he could hit it, hit the tee, there’s no way in the world he wouldn’t outdrive me, and he said no, and I said, ‘Well, then I get you by three yards because you didn’t hit.'”

After the ceremony concluded, James Williams wore a glow.

“It was very reflective last night,” he said. “I went to dinner with a group of folks and the conversation was about Lee Elder and because of the stories that were told about playing golf with Lee Trevino, playing golf with Jack Nicklaus.”

At an event Wednesday evening, Elder signed Williams’ “1975” hat. Williams, a McDonald’s franchisee and Navy veteran, wore the hat to the opening tee shots.

“The family distributed them to us yesterday, and God, I’m going to have this keepsake for life,” Williams said. “My son will have it as well.”

Augusta National began the tradition of hosting honorary starters nearly 60 years ago. At the time, the club had neither a Black members nor a Black Masters entrant.

On Thursday, the green-jacketed members stood and clapped for Elder.

Sure, the ceremony marked the beginning of the Masters Thursday, but for once, it meant so much more than that.

“I stepped back because it was a moment for me,” Williams said. “A moment to appreciate, a moment to say thank you. So that’s what I did.”

James Colgan

Golf.com Editor

James Colgan is an assistant editor at GOLF, contributing stories for the website and magazine on a broad range of topics. He writes the Hot Mic, GOLF’s weekly media column, in addition to using his broadcast experience on various social media and video projects. A 2019 graduate of Syracuse University, James — and evidently, his golf game — are still defrosting from four years in the snow. Prior to joining GOLF, James was a caddie scholarship recipient (and astute looper) on Long Island, where he is from.