Lee Elder will ‘cherish’ Masters moment with Jack Nicklaus

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a moment for Lee Elder that he said rivaled anything he’s experienced in his accomplished golf career, which includes four PGA Tour victories and eight more wins on the senior circuit.

With the morning sun rising over Augusta National as the 85th Masters was about to start, the 86-year-old Elder, the first black man ever to compete in a Masters, joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the honorary starters on Thursday.

Nicklaus has won six green jackets. Player has won three. Yet Elder’s place in Masters history is just as significant — despite the fact he had a best finish of tied for 17th and missed the cut three of the six times he played.

Elder, who’s battling health issues and had an oxygen tank in tow, was driven to the first tee on a golf cart and helped to a chair on the first tee. Still, he waved to the gallery triumphantly as he received applause before Player and then Nicklaus sent their respective ceremonial first tee shots down the first fairway.

It was a far different experience for the man who received death threats as he was about to break the Masters color barrier in ’75.

“My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday,” Elder said after the ceremony on the first tee. “For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in. It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

Lee Elder Masters 2021
Honarary Stater Lee Elder (l.) with Gary Player (c.) and Jack Nicklaus (r.) at the Masters on April 8, 2021.
Getty Images

Seeing Elder there with Nicklaus and Player on that first tee was a powerful moment.

Elder famously returned to Augusta for the ’97 final round when it was clear Tiger Woods was about to become the first black man to win a Masters.

“I made history here, and I came here today to see more history made,” Elder said that day. “After today, no one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee.”

Elder cried that day because he saw a similar scene unfold as Woods was about to win from when he first played in ’75 — with many of the black Augusta National employees emerging from the clubhouse to witness the moment.

For Elder’s moment in the sun Thursday, a contingent of patrons wearing green ball caps with “1975” on them to commemorate Elder’s momentous first Masters year stood off to the side of the tee box.

Lee Elder watches his shot during the 1975 Masters.
Augusta National/Getty Images

Former U.S. Secretary of State and current Augusta member Condoleezza Rice beamed as she stood and watched the historic moment.

“It was fantastic,” Rice said. “What a moment.”

Among the players in the tournament field who turned up for the early-morning moment were Phil Mickelson, whose first-round tee time wasn’t until more than five hours later at 1:15 p.m., Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, the only black player in the field.

Elder said he vividly recalls that ’75 Masters and how he felt.

“What I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations,” he said. “I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I’ll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play.”

Nicklaus recalled being “kind of astonished when that was announced that a black player hadn’t played” the Masters before Elder became the first.

“He had Teddy Rhodes before him and he had Charlie Sifford before him and fellows who could well have played, been invited to the Masters,” Nicklaus said. “I thought it was long overdue when he finally got invited.”

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