The Masters golf tournament honoring Lee Elder doesn’t ring true
today at 9:02 am
“As long as I’m alive, golfers will be white, and caddies will be black.”
Those words were spoken by Clifford Roberts. He was the chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club for forty-five years. He almost pulled it off. It was in Roberts last year as chairman when Lee Elder became the first Black golfer to play in the Masters. Roberts died two years later.
Golf has always been known for its lack of diversity. Augusta National and the Masters Tournament took that to a higher level. If you wanted to be a club member you needed to be a white male. No women members or people of color. If you were a professional golfer and wanted to play in the first major of the season, you needed to qualify for their tournament. Augusta National set the rules on who qualified.
The Masters was started by Roberts and legendary golfer Bobby Jones in 1934. For the first three decades, they didn’t have to worry about integrating the tournament. That changed in 1968 when Lee Elder joined the PGA Tour. No, he wasn’t the first Black professional golfer, but he was the first to play well enough to meet the requirements to play in the Masters. The problem was Roberts kept changing those requirements.
The main way to qualify for the tournament was to earn enough money to finish high enough on the tour’s money earning’s list. Elder did that starting in his early years on the tour. Roberts changed the rule to require that you needed to win a tournament to play in Augusta. The only reason for the rule change was to keep Lee Elder from playing in the Masters.
When called out about this Roberts said, “To make an exception would be practicing discrimination in reverse.”
It took seven years but Lee Elder won his first PGA Tour tournament at the Monsanto Open in April 1974. A year later, he broke the color barrier by becoming the first Black golfer to tee it up at Augusta National. He went on to play the Masters five more times. His final appearance there came four years after the death of Clifford Roberts.
Lee Elder had an excellent professional golf career. He won four times on the regular tour and went on to to win eight tournaments on the Senior Tour. In spite of his accolades, the first thing that will come up when his name is mentioned will be that first Masters appearance almost five decades ago.
Although Elder broke one barrier, not much changed at Augusta. The club didn’t admit their first Black member until 1990. It took until 2012 for them to admit their first two women members, one of them being former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 1997, Tiger Woods won his first of five Masters’ championships. The occasion was marked by the racist words coming from former Masters winner Fuzzy Zoeller:
“That little boy is driving well and he’s putting well. He’s doing everything it takes to win. So, you know what you guys do when he gets in here? You pat him on the back and say congratulations and enjoy it and tell him not to serve fried chicken next year. Got it. Or collard greens or whatever the hell they serve.”
The 2021 version of the Masters got underway yesterday. One of their traditions is having honorary starters hit the first drives to open play. In recent years the honor has gone to all-time greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. This year they added Lee Elder to the group. Elder is now eighty-six years old, wears an oxygen tank and is unable to hit a golf ball. He did stand and acknowledge the cheers from the Masters patrons, as the club likes to call the fans who watch the tournament.
It was a lovely and emotional moment. Even current players and former Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson came out to watch. It’s always moving to see the past greats honored. The only problem is knowing the history of the golf club and its tournament, it seemed forced and fake.
Why now? Why did it take decades to honor a groundbreaking athlete?
If you’ve been following the news, you know that the state of Georgia and its politicians have been one of the lead stories for the last few weeks. Their new election law has made it harder to vote and will likely disenfranchise many of the state’s voters. Not surprisingly it will affect the African-American communities that came out in record numbers in the 2020 elections. Georgia isn’t the only state to come up with new restrictive voting laws, far from it, they were just the first to pull the trigger and make it official.
The backlash was immediate. Two of the state’s biggest employers, Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines came out against the law. Major League Baseball took it a step further by moving this year’s All-Star game from Atlanta to Denver. When Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley was asked about the law and if the tournament should be moved, he responded:
“I believe, as does everyone in our organization, that the right to vote is fundamental in our democratic society. No one should be disadvantaged in exercising that right, and it is critical that all citizens have confidence in the electoral process. This is fundamental to who we are as a people. We realize that views and opinions on this law differ, and there have been calls for boycotts and other punitive measures. Unfortunately, those actions often impose the greatest burdens on the most vulnerable in our society. And in this case, that includes our friends and neighbors here in Augusta, who are the very focus of the positive difference we are trying to make.’’
Basically what Ridley said was money to the community, the club and himself trumped everything else. There was no way the tournament was going anywhere, but we knew that all along.
So with all of the above history and the current political atmosphere, it just seems odd that this is the time to finally give Lee Elder his due at Augusta. Yes, I realize it’s cynical to go down this road, but it’s Augusta and the Masters and they’ve earned this because of their decades of behavior. I also realize that this honor was most likely set up long before the political controversy in Georgia, but again it’s Augusta and the Masters and there will always be a doubt behind their motives.
So to Lee Elder, congratulations on your groundbreaking career and this well-deserved honor. To the people running Augusta National and the Masters, let’s hope when you set this up that your hearts were in the right place because you’ve proven through your actions that they often are not. Keep trying to do better. Keep trying to be better.
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