Nineteen seventy-five was a historic year for African-Americans in the country club sports: Arthur Ashe won at Wimbledon and Lee Elder broke the last racial barrier in U.S. professional sports by becoming the first black to play in the Masters. Elder was back at the Masters last week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his groundbreaking achievement.
For the occasion Hank Aaron loaned Elder a Jaguar XJ6 from his Atlanta car dealership. Painted on the driver- and passenger-side doors were the words LEE ELDER--MASTERS 1975. "It was like a ticker-tape parade every day driving around down here," said Elder, now retired at 70. "People honked their horns and tried to stop me for autographs."
A native of Dallas, Elder dominated the black pro circuit before joining the PGA Tour in 1968. He won four times and qualified for the '75 Masters with his victory at the '74 Pensacola Open. But today Elder feels like a war hero who has come home to an empty town square. Although the club does give him four guest badges each year, it rebuffed Elder's efforts to stage any recognition of the anniversary. "I am very disappointed with the club," Elder said last week. "If the Golf Writers Association of America could honor me for the 25th anniversary, the club could've done something for my 30th." Elder, who competed in six Masters, added, "I wasn't expecting a membership from the club, but they could have let me play in the Par-3 Contest or allowed me to be an honorary starter."
Traditionally, honorary starters are past champions, but that doesn't change Elder's point. Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and the U.S. Tennis Association, to name a few, have all honored their groundbreaking black athletes. Within the Augusta community, others saw fit to celebrate Elder's achievement. On Monday night of tournament week he received a proclamation commemorating the anniversary from the Augusta city council. Later in the week he was toasted at parties given by State Senator Charles Walker and Shirley Lewis, the president of Paine College, a historically black institution in Augusta. "We've been around the horn," Elder said. "Everybody wants a piece of you when it's your 30th."
April 17, 2005
Everyone except Augusta National, which offered no comment on Elder's complaints. Like many exclusive golf clubs, Augusta has a mixed history on racial matters. The 72-year-old club has six African-American members, but a black man at the National is still far more likely to be holding down a menial job than a tee time.
Elder didn't let the lack of progress or bad feelings stop him from having a good time. On Sunday, as Tiger Woods, whom Elder calls a friend and an inheritor of his legacy, was headed toward his fourth green jacket, Elder wheeled the XJ6 through Gate 6 of the club. "The words on the [car] door will get me into any gate except Gate 2, Magnolia Lane," he said. "But that's O.K. I've been down that road before." ‚ñ†