How Augusta National and Steph Curry got Lee Elder the love he deserves, at last

Jay Busbee
·6-min read

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first time Lee Elder entered the grounds of Augusta National, he and a friend drove up Magnolia Lane. They toured the famed clubhouse, strolled around the majestic oak, looked out at the tee where, in just a few days’ time, Elder would start his first Masters. Then they went into the nearby grill room for lunch. As they dined, the maitre’d approached their table.

“I just wanted you to know,” he said, “you two are the first Black men ever to eat in the clubhouse besides the help.”

This was in 1975.

Forty-six years later almost to the day, Elder was back at Augusta National, just a few steps from that dining room, joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to ceremonially start the 2021 Masters. The patrons surrounding the first tee welcomed Elder, the first Black man to play the Masters, with the most sustained applause of the morning. It felt like a release, an acknowledgement of all Elder had to suffer to get to that 1975 tournament, a long-overdue congratulation and apology. 

Just outside the ropes, Arthur Johnson, Elder’s friend from that day long ago, took in the whole scene, a diverse gathering of friends and family cheering Elder in one of the classic bastions of old-money South.

“The changes to this place,” Johnson said, “have been tremendous.”

Forty-six years ago, Elder looked out on that first tee, and he was terrified. He’d been paired with Gene Littler, who offered a bit of advice just before the two walked out together.

Lee Elder salutes Augusta National as Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus cheer him on. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Lee Elder salutes Augusta National as Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus cheer him on. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“Lee, I know this is going to be a hard day for you, but I just want you to know,” Littler said, “If I get in your way, just shout at me because I have a tendency to do those things.” Humor broke the tension, and Elder relaxed a bit.

“What I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations,” he said. “I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I'll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.”

Johnson, sporting a forest-green “1975” cap in honor of that year, remembered things a little differently. He was in the gallery, and thus had a far different perspective than Elder out on the course.

“The tension in the air was high,” he said. “The people weren’t as friendly as they are today. They weren’t saying anything out loud, but there was a lot of muttering under their breath.”

Elder had spent the first part of the week trying to navigate a stream of media requests so constant that he eventually had to beg then-club chairman Clifford Roberts to curtail them. “He couldn’t practice,” Johnson recalled. “He couldn’t get to know the course. He had no time.”

Even though Elder had played well enough to warrant an invitation to the Masters, outside of the gates of Augusta National he was still suffering because of the color of his skin. Local Augusta restaurateur David Rachels told another story from that week.

“Lee and his party went into a restaurant called the Green Jacket,” Rachels said. “It was early in the evening. There was nobody there. And they looked at Lee and said, ‘We can’t serve you here.’ So the entire party had to leave, even though there were tables open everywhere.

“But the restaurant closed and went out of business, and here’s Lee getting honored at the Masters,” Rachels saiid, “so sometimes things work out.”

Rachels was another of more than 50 people gathered around the first tee wearing a “1975” cap. Each one had stitching on its side that read “Stay the course,” an Elder quote. On the back: the distinctive logo of Steph Curry’s Curry Brand.

Curry’s team recently connected with Elder’s foundation to help spread Elder’s message of diversity and inclusion in golf. Curry himself sported one of the caps in a message posted shortly after the ceremony:

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Friday night, Curry will wear one of the 1975 hats prior to the tipoff of Golden State’s game against Washington. Several other NBA players, including current and former teammates like Kent Bazemore, Damion Lee and Andre Iguodala, are expected to show solidarity by also wearing the caps.

Out on the first tee, Elder sat with a portable oxygen tank as Player and Nicklaus teed off. There was special significance for both of those men in Elder’s life, too: Nicklaus won that 1975 tournament, and Player took Elder on a golf tour of South Africa as a peacemaking mission designed to break down barriers and promote knowledge over ignorance.

“Lee Elder came down, and he was put under an enormous amount of pressure by people in this country, mainly Black people, understandably, and I was called a traitor,” Player said. “Lee Elder on his way to South Africa won the Nigerian Open, came to South Africa, played in our PGA, got standing ovations.”

As Nicklaus and Player teed off, Elder could only watch from a nearby seat. Medical conditions prevented him from being able to swing the club, which, according to friends, irritated him to no end. “He wanted to get out there so bad,” said Roosevelt Walden, a longtime friend of Elder’s. “He put off surgery for this. He has such a passion.”

“It was a choice between what he wanted to do and what his body was telling him he could do,” said Dori O’Rourke, Elder's business manager.

As the ceremony wound down and the first players in the tournament teed up, the 1975 crew mingled with purple-clad representatives of Paine College, the Augusta HBCU that will host a golf scholarship funded by Augusta National in Elder’s name. Smiles were hidden behind masks, but laughter and tears of joy were all around, and a sense of completion and peace filled the air.

“There’s a Hebrew saying, El Roi, it means ‘God sees you,’ ” said Walden. “This is God saying, ‘I see you, Lee.’”

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

More from The Masters: