Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley announced Monday that the club will honor Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to play in the Masters Tournament with a role as an Honorary Starter at the 2021 Masters. Elder will also have scholarships established in his name.
Elder made his debut in the 1975 Masters at age 40. He missed the cut that year but went on to finish in the top 20 in both 1977 and 1979. Elder won four times on the PGA Tour in his career.
He will hit the ceremonial tee shot at the 2021 Masters alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Ridley said he wanted to wait until 2021 to include Elder in this tradition so he could be honored by his family and patrons who will hopefully be in attendance by next year’s event in April.
“Mr. Elder’s participation in the honorary starters ceremony next April will recognize his courageous life
and commemorate all he has done in his career to help eliminate barriers and inspire Black men and women in the game of golf and beyond,” Ridley said in a statement. “We hope that by having him serve as an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters that he can be joined at the first tee by family, friends and patrons for a moment that will be treasured worldwide.”
Augusta National is also endowing two scholarships in Elder’s name, both to Paine College, a local HBCU. They will be called the Lee Elder Scholarships with one each awarded to a male and female golfer. Paine College does not yet have a women’s golf team, so Augusta National will be launching and funding one.
Elder’s story is remarkable. His parents died before he reached age 10, and he got into golf first as a caddie before playing for years on the United Golf Association (then a minority tour) and finally qualifying for the PGA Tour through Q-School. He won the 1974 Monsanto Open on the PGA Tour to qualify for the 1975 Masters.
It was a tense time both within the culture and within the sport when Elder was playing. He did not have an easy path as a professional golfer in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. His courage and laborious effort, though, paved the way for those who came after him, including Tiger Woods.
“We all belong,” Woods said after the news was announced on Monday morning. “Such wonderful news to hear from Augusta National in celebration of Lee Elder.”
It’s a good step and a great celebration of Elder, whose statistics and achievements cannot tell the whole story of his life. Every sport has a first when it comes to the racial barrier. Elder was not the first Black man on the PGA Tour nor the first Black man to win a major. However, he was the first Black man to play in the Masters, and now he’s being honored by the club in a meaningful way.
“When I arrived at the front gate and drove down Magnolia Lane, that’s when the shakes began,” he told the BBC a few years ago of his first Masters in 1975. “It was so nerve-racking.”
It will be nerve-racking for a different reason in 2021, but Elder — just as he did in 1975 — will walk to that first tee box, put a tee in the ground and pump one into the first fairway. This time it won’t count toward any tournament total, but it will be just as meaningful and celebrated now as it was back then.