AUGUSTA – Lee Elder had a clear path to the first tee at Augusta National.

Arriving again, 46 years after he became the first Black player to compete at the Masters, the 86-year-old Elder took part in the ceremonial tee shot to start the 2021 Masters on Thursday. He made his way, via golf cart, to applause from the crowd surrounding the tee box. He had the stage to himself for a few minutes before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player arrived to officially start the tournament.

Elder was unable to hit a drive, but Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said in his introduction that “we are honored not with a drive but with his strength, presence and character.”

Just as he made history in 1975, Elder joined two of golf’s elite to continue a long-standing Masters tradition.

“For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in,” Elder said after the ceremony. “It is certainly something that I will cherish for the rest of my life because I have loved coming to Augusta National and playing here. ...

“But to me, my heart is very soft this morning, not heavy (but) soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday and being able to see some of the great friends that I have made over the past years, especially like these two gentlemen that are here.”

ExploreDeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond among those honoring Lee Elder in Augusta

In addition to the crowd of club members, guests, Black members of the PGA of America and representatives from Paine College, where Elder received an honorary degree last year, and early-arriving fans, former champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Nick Faldo watched the tee shot ceremony sporting their green jackets.

Elder recalls the applause he received on each hole during his Masters debut all those years ago. He said he remembers being nervous and that it took several holes to calm his nerves. As far as the weight of history on his shoulders, Elder said Thursday he tried to stay in the moment.

“I think that on several occasions, as I thought about where I was at and where I had come from, was certainly something that was a reminder, a reminder of, hey, you’ve worked for this, you have now achieved it,” Elder said. “Just relax and enjoy and enjoy the moment. Your life is not going to depend on how well you play. You don’t have to be worrying about carrying anyone on your shoulder. You’re there just on your own.

“This was a goal that you had set for yourself. You have achieved it, so now relax and play some golf and just enjoy the moment.”

Elder played in six Masters during his career. His best finish was a tie for 17th in 1979. His Masters debut was won by Nicklaus, the fifth of his record six victories. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Player’s first of three Masters wins in 1961 and the 35th anniversary of Nicklaus’ historic sixth win in 1986.

He began his career as a caddie in Dallas and eventually started playing golf. He made money playing others a public course and on the UGA Tour before eventually reaching the PGA Tour. He said he won 21 of 23 events and had to show a bank statement proving he had $6,500 to play on the top professional tour.

He credited a playoff loss to Nicklaus at the American Golf Classic at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, with boosting his career. Nicklaus won on the fifth playoff hole.

“I knew that if I could play five extra holes with the great Jack Nicklaus, I knew that I had arrived and that I could play on the tour,” Elder said.

By 1975, Elder had earned an invite to the Masters. Nicklaus said he was “astonished” that Elder was the first Black player because he, Teddy Rhodes and Charlie Sifford were good players. “I thought it was long overdue when he finally got invited,” Nicklaus said.

Then and now, Elder is a part of Masters history.

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