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At the Masters, Lee Elder Gets Another Moment in the Spotlight

AUGUSTA, Ga. — With the sun rising over his shoulders, Lee Elder was introduced to a crowd of several hundred on the first tee of the Masters Tournament on Thursday morning. Forty-six years earlier, on roughly the same spot at Augusta National, Elder had teed off as the first Black man to play in the tournament.

“I was just so nervous,” Elder said, recalling the opening moments of his historic 1975 appearance.

But on Thursday morning, Elder was at ease and smiling, joining the golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the first Black player included in a decades-long Masters tradition: a celebration of honorary starters who strike the first ceremonial shots of another Masters.

Elder, 86, was seated in a white patio chair on the first tee next to about 20 family members, friends and Black P.G.A. golf professionals dressed in formal attire and aligned in a regal row. Recent issues with his mobility would prevent Elder from striking a shot on Thursday but he was greeted first by the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, Fred S. Ridley.

“Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once again — not with a drive, but with his presence, strength and character,” Ridley said.

Using the golf vernacular reserved for a player who, by a leading performance, has earned the right to tee off first, Ridley added, “Lee, it is my privilege to say you have the honors.”

Elder pushed at the armrests of his chair to rise but wavered as he tried to stand until Player stepped forward and placed a hand under Elder’s left arm to lift him into an upright posture. Turning to the surrounding congregation, Elder nodded his head with a wave of his left hand, then raised the driver in his right hand as if to answer the ovation that endured for 40 seconds. Elder, with a grin, then returned to his seat.

It has been a sometimes taut atmosphere at the 85th Masters this week as players and tournament officials have been asked about the new, restrictive Georgia elections law roiling the state. While Elder was invited to participate in the 1975 tournament — many years after he and other Black players were qualified to play — Augusta National did not admit its first Black member until 1990, and its first woman until 2012.

Elder’s role in the first tee ceremony, viewed as long overdue, has been much anticipated since it was announced last year and then delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The symbolism of his appearance was not lost at a time when the country is undergoing a racial justice reckoning. But for a long moment on Thursday, the focus seemed to be on enveloping Elder in a tribute.

At a news conference shortly after the first tee ceremony, Player recalled that in 1969 he invited Elder to play in his home country of South Africa.

“It’s quite sad to think that in those days, with the segregation policy that South Africa had, that I had to go to my president and get permission for Lee Elder to come and play in our PGA,” Player said, adding, “I was called a traitor.”

Player recalled that Elder was greeted by loud standing ovations.

“We then went on to other venues,” Player said. “You can imagine at that time in history how encouraging it was for a young Black boy to see this champion playing.”

Elder recalled that he won 21 of 23 events in 1966 on the United Golf Association tour, which was a series of tournaments for African-American golfers at a time when they were regularly excluded from other top professional golf events. The next year, he bid to join the PGA Tour — he needed to provide a copy of a bank statement balance of $6,500 — and by 1969 found himself in a playoff to win the prestigious Firestone Open in Nicklaus’s native state of Ohio.

As Elder told the story on Thursday, Nicklaus, who was seated next to him on the news conference dais, interjected, “I robbed you, didn’t I?”

Elder turned to Nicklaus, “You did.”

Nicklaus explained that he made three putts of more than 35 feet to keep the playoff alive. Finally, Nicklaus prevailed to win the tournament.

“He got lucky,” said Elder, who unsuccessfully suppressed a snicker, even a giggle.

He was having a good day.

“It was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” he said of the first tee ceremony on Thursday.

Pausing to adjust his eyeglasses, Elder added: “My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, but soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered. It’s a great honor and I cherish it very much.”

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