Barrier-breaking golfer Lee Elder being honored by the Masters with scholarship

Free Press wire reports | 11/12/2020, 6 p.m.
In a year marked by racial injustice, Augusta National announced Monday it would honor Lee Elder with two scholar- ships …
Lee Elder stands on the first tee Nov. 9 at the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga. Photo by Chris Carlson/Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - In a year marked by racial injustice, Augusta National announced Monday it would honor Lee Elder with two scholarships in his name at Paine College and an honorary tee shot next year for the first Black player in the Masters.

“It’s mind-boggling every time I think about it,” said Mr. Elder, who made his barrier-breaking debut in 1975.

It was about time, according to Masters Chairman Fred Ridley, who said racial injustice and equality have been at the forefront of the nation this year.

“Our question was not so much what we can say, but what we can do,” Mr. Ridley said.

For some two decades, the Masters has provided scholarship money for Paine College, a private, HBCU in Augusta. The Lee Elder Scholarship will be endowed for one man and one woman on the golf team. The fact that Paine doesn’t have a women’s golf program was not a problem. Mr. Ridley said Augusta National would pay to start one.

Mr. Elder already was looking ahead to next April when he returns to the first tee, this time with a shot that doesn’t count toward a score, but is more meaningful to him than when he first played the tournament.

“That is one thing that’s going to be significant to me because 1975 was just an ordinary shot playing a golf tournament, even though it was the Masters,” Mr. Elder said. “It’s not as significant as this shot will be come April 8, 2021, because my heart and soul will be into this shot.”

The criteria have changed over the years at the Masters, and when the club began issuing invitations to PGA Tour winners, Mr. Elder qualified by winning the 1974 Pensacola Open. That made him eligible for the 1975 Masters. He missed the cut, though Mr. Ridley said the moment was historic because of the message it sent that “I belong.”

The connection to Paine College goes beyond it being an HBCU.

Mr. Elder arrived in Augusta more than 45 years ago to much fanfare as the first Black competitor in a tournament that for four decades only included Black people as caddies or in catering.

Finding a place to eat dinner was difficult. Mr. Elder said that was more because he had some 15 people with him than “being segregated against.” Dr. Julius Scott, in his first year as president of Paine College, handled the catering for Mr. Elder all week.

From that week, Mr. Elder began a relationship with the college.

“Look at old yearbooks and you’ll see pictures of him with the golf team,” said Dr. Cheryl Evans Jones, Paine College’s current president. “He has made a lot of contributions to the sport.”

Mr. Ridley said he did not know how much it would cost to start a women’s golf program at the college and that was irrelevant. He said Augusta National would pay for everything.

“The times I have visited, a lot of the ladies came out to watch the men play,” Mr. Elder said. “I heard quite a number of times, ‘Gee, I wish we had a team so we could play.’ By Augusta National making that decision, it’s now going to give them a chance to fulfill that dream of being able to come to college, get a four-year scholarship plus compete on the golf team.”

Next April, Mr. Elder will join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as the honorary starters at the Masters. Mr. Ridley referred to it as a “special moment in time,” suggesting it will be a one-time appearance as honorary starter.

Mr. Elder ended his career with four PGA Tour victories. He played five more times in the Masters, with his best finish a tie for 17th in 1979.

“To know that I would be hitting a shot off the first tee alongside the great Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, you have to think about where you’re at and what you’ve accomplished and why you’re there,” Mr. Elder said. “A young man from the ghetto of Dallas, Texas, man, you’ve achieved world fame. The whole world will be watching and looking.

“For the chairman to present me with that opportunity is something I’ll never forget. Never forget.”