He marched on Washington for the “I Have a Dream” speech. He as soon as searched in useless for his golf ball in Memphis after a spectator absconded with it. He strode briskly down the center of a Florida fairway with an armed guard subsequent to him and dying threats rattling in his head.
Lee Elder will participate in a unique stroll Thursday. With daybreak breaking and the solar peeking over the Georgia pines, he’ll step onto the primary tee at Augusta National and — together with legendary golfers Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — hit one of many ceremonial drives to open probably the most prestigious event in golf.
“I’m surely going to be nervous, there’s no doubt about that,” mentioned Elder, 86, who broke the colour barrier in 1975, changing into the primary Black golfer to play within the Masters. “If someone says they’re not going to be nervous in the presence of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, with all these people watching, you have to be. I just want to make sure that first shot of mine goes straight.”
Elder, who lives in a senior group in Escondido, doesn’t have the mixed 9 inexperienced jackets of Nicklaus and Player — his finest end was a tie for seventeenth in 1979 — however his contribution to golf historical past is monumental. Friends and household from everywhere in the nation will ring the tee field to watch the shot.
“He’s hit millions of golf balls, but this one swing is one that’s really taking away the walls of division for people all over the world,” mentioned Dave Scott, amongst his closest mates. “That’s the beauty of this.”
Just a few miles from Augusta National, at a public course that’s a favourite of the Black caddies who used to work the Masters, Elder’s impression is felt in a profound means.
“I’ll be in front of the TV,” mentioned Curtis Smith, standing within the parking zone of the Augusta Municipal Golf Course, a spot recognized affectionately because the Patch. “I won’t be playing no golf at the time. It’s very meaningful. To see him play the Masters, and now for him to be hitting a ball in that ceremony … that’s the top of my list right there.”
Elder was recognized for driving the ball laser straight, but his path to prominence was something however direct. It’s troublesome sufficient to make it as an expert golfer. This was the late Sixties and early ’70s, and, due to the colour of his pores and skin, Elder had all kinds of different obstacles positioned in his path.
“When I won at Pensacola, they had received calls that if I won the tournament I would never get out of there alive,” he mentioned throughout a latest two-hour interview with the Los Angeles Times at his condominium complicated north of San Diego. “So when I made the putt to win and I was going out to join my friends, Jim Vickers and Harry Toscano, they had beers in their hands ready for me. Jack Tuthill, who was then the tour supervisor, grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, you can’t go out there.’ I said, ‘Why can’t I?’ He said for me to get in the car so they could drive me back to the clubhouse. In the car, he told me about the threats.
“The ceremony was given inside the clubhouse. We couldn’t do it outside. That was the decision of the people there. I was ready to get my trophy and my check and get out of there.”
There have been extra threats. Once, on a par-five at Colonial Country Club in Memphis, a spectator ran onto the golf green, picked up his ball and threw it into the street.
“When I called for a ruling, they came down and people were heckling,” Elder recalled. “Everything about, ‘What’choo doing? You’re giving that … a free drop?’ talking to the supervisor.”
Terry Dill, who together with Tommy Aaron was taking part in within the threesome, spoke up.
“Terry said, ‘The ball was approximately here. We watched it from the tee and knew that it was in the fairway,’” recalled Elder, who ultimately bought a drop. “The next day, I had to play with a police armed guard. My friends came with me and had to walk in the fairway with me.”
Despite these recollections of ugliness, Elder is heat, gregarious, and beloved by his fellow golfers. He’s not consumed by bitterness however overwhelmed by gratitude.
“I’m very excited about it, there’s no doubt,” he mentioned of the ceremony. “To have the option to stroll up and take the place of the good Arnold Palmer [who died in 2016], to go up and step in his sneakers — effectively, not step in his sneakers as a result of that would by no means occur — however simply to be current, to be on the tee with these two giants, goes to be very thrilling for me.”
It was in November, at the Masters that had been postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley announced the club would be honoring Elder for his trailblazing and courageous contributions to the game.
“He’s had a rough ride,” Player said. “When you live the kind of lives that we’ve had and you think of the rough ride that he had, it was most appropriate to be asking him to do it.”
The club endowed two scholarships at Augusta’s Paine College in Elder’s name and pledged to cover all costs of the school’s men’s and fledgling women’s golf programs.
“We hope this is a time for celebration, and a time that will be a legacy, create a legacy, not only for Lee but for us that will last forever,” Ridley said at the time.
Elder did not attend Paine, a historically Black college, but feels a deep connection to it. When he made his Masters debut in 1975, he and a group of friends who had accompanied him from Washington, D.C., were denied service at an Augusta restaurant, ostensibly because of their race. Upon hearing that, Dr. Julius Scott, then Paine president, told the golfer and his friends that chefs from the school would be preparing them meals for the rest of the week.
“When I finished my first round, everybody that was not out on the course was lined up all along the clubhouse area to say, ‘Thank you for coming, Mr. Elder.’ That was fantastic. … I had to shed a few tears.”
Lee Elder, on his reception after his first round at the Masters
That courtesy was among the spectacular memories for Elder that week. There were other poignant gestures of kindness.
Car dealer Jack Pohanka, who sponsored Elder, had 2,000 badges made and handed them out to Masters spectators, known as patrons. The pins featured a picture of Elder with the words, “Welcome to Augusta, Lee Elder. Good luck.” They have been gone in hours.
“Everywhere you looked around in the gallery, on each and every fairway, you saw people with those buttons on,” mentioned Elder, who repeatedly bought standing ovations as he walked down the fairways.
Most shifting to him was the reception when he completed his first day.
“It wasn’t from the patrons, it was from the workers,” he mentioned. “When I finished my first round, everybody that was not out on the course was lined up all along the clubhouse area to say, ‘Thank you for coming, Mr. Elder.’ That was fantastic.
“Here I was coming off after my first round and being greeted by a lot of the friends, a lot of the well-wishers. The line was so long. I was walking along, and all of a sudden I see all these people out there. I had to shed a few tears.”
Idyllic as that sounds, Elder nonetheless rented two homes in Augusta due to safety considerations, so individuals wouldn’t know precisely the place he was staying. He had certified for the Masters with a event victory at Pensacola, on a course that when denied him entry to the clubhouse and made him use the parking zone to develop into his golf sneakers.
“I feel that several players should have been at the Masters before me,” he mentioned. “You go back and look at Pete Brown, who won the Waco Turner Open in 1965. He was not invited. In 1967, Charlie Sifford won the Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open. He was not invited.”
Sifford would win the L.A. Open in 1969. Brown received the Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1970. Still no invites. So it was vital to Elder to obtain their blessing when he lastly garnered a Masters invitation in 1975.
Although Sifford was standoffish, scarred by the repeated snubs, Brown warmly congratulated Elder, as did many different professionals.
There was a push, led by New York Congressman Herman Badillo, to safe a spot within the Masters for Elder even earlier than he received at Pensacola, however in the long run the golfer himself didn’t need that.
“They asked me if I would accept it, and I said no,” Elder mentioned. “The only way I wanted to go to the Masters and participate was by virtue of winning and qualifying to go the correct way. Not a special invitation because of my color, because I had a lot of friends that happened to be white that had a record equal to mine if not better. So how do you think they would feel? You think they would continue to be my friend if I accepted something like that?”
Elder and Player have been shut mates for many of their lives. In 1969, they made an audacious journey to South Africa, Player’s residence nation, which was ravaged by racial division.
“He was put under a lot of pressure by certain groups here, and I was called a traitor,” Player mentioned. “So he came down there, and must have been very nervous, and he had the courage to accept the invitation and come down there knowing what a great deed he would be doing. It was very influential because at that stage no Black visitors or people of any color were visiting South Africa.
“At that stage we still had a lot of young Black potential golfers, but they didn’t have a hero, so to speak, and to have Lee Elder come down there was remarkable, and it went off extremely well.”
Elder had the official designation of goodwill ambassador by the U.S. authorities on the journey, and the 2 made stops in Liberia, Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya earlier than arriving in South Africa.
“I told the South African prime minister that I wasn’t coming to play before a segregated audience,” Elder mentioned. “I said, ‘If I’m coming to South Africa, I’m going to come play before a mixed audience.’ Also, the Blacks who didn’t have enough money to pay the fees to come in, they’re going to have to be able to come in for free, which they granted me.”
He regards it as one of the crucial gratifying journeys of his life. And Thursday can be one other — and one which has sparked a little bit of that previous aggressive fireplace.
“The vice chairman called me the other day and said, ‘How do you think you’re going to fare?’ ” he mentioned. Then, with that playful snicker: “I said, ‘Man, I’m going to out-hit both those guys by at least a hundred yards.’ ”
This story initially appeared in Los Angeles Times.