Masters: Lee Elder - The man who broke Augusta’s race barrier

CNN  — 

Lee Elder sat in Augusta National’s clubhouse and waited.

After uttering a quiet prayer he emerged into the morning for a short but ground-breaking walk.

For the first time in the history of golf’s revered Masters tournament, a black man strode onto the first tee – not carrying the clubs of a white participant – but ready to play.

Elder was here to hit a shot that would be heard around the world.

“It was very nerve-racking,” he tells CNN of the moment in 1975 when he broke down one of sport’s longstanding racial barriers.

“I was shaking so badly, I did not know if I was even going to be able to tee up the ball.

“How I got through it I do not know, just with the help of the Almighty I got there and was able to put my ball on the tee.”

Breaking down barriers

Elder’s brief stroll was the last leg of a treacherous journey that had taken years to arrow in on its Augusta target.

He was attempting to make his way in the game at a notoriously volatile period for race relations in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s.

At one tournament he had been forced to change in the parking lot after being refused entry to the clubhouse; during another his ball had been hurled into a hedge by a spectator.

Now, here he was, sizing up a permanent blow to his oppressors, after being warmly applauded all the way to the first tee.

“My tee shot landed in the middle of the first fairway,” recalls the 80-year-old. “How I accomplished that I do not know.

“The applause was the relieving factor for me – it really helped me to relax. If it had been dead silent and quiet it would have been a different situation.

“The fact they clapped, let me know they had received me and they wanted me there to play, really helped.”

Intimidation and threats

In the year leading up to his Masters appearance, Elder had become one of the game’s most recognizable faces. But with that recognition came intimidation, and threats.

Much of the correspondence warned him not to travel to Georgia; some of it made plain to him what would happen if he did.

While the other players in the Masters field formulated plans to help them win the tournament, Elder had an extra set of logistics to take care of – staying out of harm’s way.

“Yes, I did have threats,” he explains. “It was frightening. You try to eliminate the possibility of anything happening.

“That was part of the reason for renting two houses during the Masters week. The logic behind that was the fact we did not want the people to know where I was staying.”

Elder had qualified for the Masters courtesy of a tournament victory in Pensacola, Florida.

If it wasn’t sweet enough knowing he’d booked his passage to golf’s biggest tournament, his triumph in the Monsanto Open came at the course that had once refused him entry to the clubhouse.

“Those things had pretty much subsided by the time I got to the Masters,” he says of the racial abuse he had received.

“I had made a statement that I would never go back there to Pensacola because we couldn’t go in the clubhouse. I went back in 1973 and played, then went back in 1974 and won.

“I was so overwhelmed with the fact that I had qualified and won there, the place where the problem had occurred.”

‘I did consider not going’

Elder shelved all thoughts of his Masters dream as he battled to win the first of his four PGA Tour titles.

After beating England’s Peter Oosterhuis in the playoff he was given a police escort back to the clubhouse – a response to threats he’d received during the week.

But once the euphoria of winning had subsided, he had to sit and ponder whether to accept the invitation to appear at Augusta.

“I did consider not going,” Elder says. “It was on my mind and I think the reason why I had thought about it was because it had been so difficult qualifying for the Masters.

“What I mean by that was there were so many times when we were all close to qualifying for the Masters when the rules changed.

“You used to have to qualify through a points system. It was so hard for us for the fact we were not playing in that many tournaments and it was hard to accumulate the points.

“Then it was changed and they were going to take all tournament winners in 1970, then I knew it was a chance of getting to the Masters, which I did.”

How long did it take to make up his mind?

“Maybe about a week or so – it didn’t take too long,” he adds. “I knew it was something I had wanted ever since I came on to the Tour.

“I think the reason why was there had been so much talk about no black man playing at Augusta and after all that I wasn’t going to qualify and not go.”

Touring the banquet circuit

Dallas-born Elder had nearly a year to negotiate between winning in Pensacola and pitching up at the Masters. Unsurprisingly, he became headline news.

For a man who had battled the odds all his career, plenty of doors now swung open, and offers flooded in.

“I was so sought-after when I qualified because everyone knew the last barrier in golf had now fallen and everyone wanted to be recognized with Lee Elder,” he says.

“I did a lot of speaking, and a lot of exhibitions, and it kept me pretty busy and actually took a lot away from my plan because the money that was offered was so lucrative.

“As a matter of fact that was one of my worst years because I did not finish in the top 60 of money won. I also put on one or two pounds – I certainly did!”

There was another invitation Elder received prior to the Masters that he jumped to accept.

The late Coca Cola chief executive J.P. Austin offered Elder the chance to play a couple of practice rounds at Augusta away from the glare of the spotlight that would be trained on him during Masters week.

Driving down Magnolia Lane

If Elder was nervous for his first drive down the famed Magnolia Lane that leads to Augusta’s clubhouse, that was nothing compared to how he felt ahead of his 11.15 a.m. tee time on that momentous opening Thursday.

“I had thought a lot about it, I was shaking,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect because this was a first appearance as a contestant. I didn’t know how I would be received.

“It was a very wonderful reception. When I got to the club I was met by the then chairman Clifford Roberts, who welcomed me to Augusta.

“We had a little conversation, not a long one, because I had to get to the tee. I sat and talked to my caddy for a few minutes.

“I said a prayer to myself before I left the clubhouse. I just didn’t want to go out and embarrass myself, top the ball on the first tee, a hook or a slice.

“When I walked onto the tee the fairway was lined with people right down to the green almost. It was pretty frightening. The reception was fantastic.

“The claps and the whistles were so tremendous. Almost every green I went to the crowd clapped, if they were sitting they stood up to give me applause.”

Five repeat Augusta visits

Considering the amount of attention – and pressure – on Elder’s shoulders, a two-over-par opening round of 74 was a formidable achievement.

Though he would go on to miss the cut, that only strengthened his resolve to return – which he did on five more occasions, tying for 19th place in 1977 and 17th in 1979.

“After it was over with, it was a big relief for me,” he says of that debut round.

“There was definitely a sense of pride because you want to be the first in a situation such as that – to make history. That’s what I felt I had done. It was a very proud moment for me.”

Elder would go on to become the first black man to represent the United States Ryder Cup team when he played in the 17-11 win over Europe in 1979.

Though he broke the race barrier in 1975 it would be another 37 years before the gender barrier was transcended at Augusta.

In a reminder of how long it can take to shift longstanding traditions in golf, Augusta did not permit female members until 2012.

Elder welcomes the change, and has a round of golf to play with one of the first women admitted – former U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice.

“Last year we talked in the pro shop at Augusta,” he says. “We greeted each other and she agreed to have a game sometime.”

Elder has rarely missed a Masters since he stopped playing and will be in attendance on the 40th anniversary of his first appearance.

He saw a young Tiger Woods on his debut in 1995 and immediately predicted he would go on to win the tournament. Woods duly did in 1997, adding three more green jackets since.

So who is he tipping this time round?

“I think young Rory McIlroy,” he said. “Everybody thinks the pressure is on to win the Grand Slam but I don’t think he’ll be thinking about that.

“He’ll just be thinking about taking care of business and winning the Masters.”

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