Masters to honor Lee Elder, give to Paine

LUT WILLIAMS BCSP editor

Lee Elder, the first Black man to compete in the Masters Tournament 45 years ago, smiles after Fred Ridley, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, made an announcement that Elder will be honored by establishing scholarships in his name and inviting him to be an Honorary Starter for the 2021 Masters as seen during Practice Round 2 for the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Monday, November 9, 2020.

Fred Ridley, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, announced Monday that Lee Elder, the first Black man to compete in the Masters Golf Tournament 45 years ago, will be honored by establishing scholarships in his name at Paine College and inviting him to be an Honorary Starter for the 2021 Masters Tournament.

It’s mind-boggling every time I think about it,” said Elder, who made his barrier-breaking debut in 1975.

The press conference was held at Augusta National, which is hosting The Masters, one of golf’s major events this week that is usually played in April but was switched to November because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ridley revealed the creation of the Lee Elder Scholarships at Paine, an HBCU located in Augusta. Two scholarships will be awarded annually, one each to a student athlete who competes on the men’s and women’s golf team.

As part of this effort, Augusta National also will fund the creation of a women’s golf program at Paine College. Soon, the Lee Elder Scholarships will help foster opportunities for Black men and women alike as they pursue their dreams on and off the course.

“We would like to thank our friends at Paine College, especially President Dr. Cheryl Evans Jones, who immediately embraced the idea of honoring Lee Elder together,” Ridley said. “Through this partnership, we look forward to further cultivating our relationship with Paine College, helping the school create its first women’s golf program and celebrating Lee Elder’s distinguished legacy through these scholarships.”

“Augusta National Golf Club has been a supporter of Paine College for many years, and we are excited to build an even closer relationship through the game of golf,” Dr. Jones said. “The endowed Lee Elder Scholarships and creation of a women’s golf program are now a permanent example of the Club’s investment in our institution and will open doors for our students for years to come. We appreciate receiving this support and recognition and look forward to working with Augusta National on initiatives that will positively impact everyone affiliated with Paine College.”

Ridley said he did not know how much it would cost to start a women’s golf program and that was irrelevant. He said Augusta National would pay for everything.

“The times I have visited, a lot of the ladies came out to watch the men play,” Elder said. “I heard quite a number of times, ‘Gee, I wish we had a team so we could play.’ By Augusta National making that decision, it’s now going to give them a chance to fulfill that dream of being able to come to college, get a four-year scholarship plus compete on the golf team.”

Ridley also shared that Elder had accepted a special invitation to join Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as an Honorary Starter for the 85th Masters Tournament on Thursday, April 8, 2021.

“That is one thing that’s going to be significant to me, because 1975 was just an ordinary shot playing a golf tournament, even though it was the Masters,” Elder said. “It’s not as significant as this shot will be come April 8, 2021. Because my heart and soul will be into this shot.

“For the chairman to present me with that opportunity is something I’ll never forget. Never forget,” he said.

“Mr. Elder’s participation in the Honorary Starters Ceremony next April will recognize his courageous life and commemorate all he has done in his career to help eliminate barriers and inspire Black men and women in the game of golf and beyond,” Ridley said. “We hope that by having him serve as an Honorary Starter for the 2021 Masters that he can be joined at the first tee by family, friends and patrons for a moment that will be treasured worldwide.”

“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream, and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.

The criteria have changed through the years at the Masters, and when the club began issuing invitations to PGA Tour winners, Elder qualified by winning the 1974 Pensacola Open. That made him eligible for the 1975 Masters. He missed the cut, though Ridley said the moment was historic because of the message it sent that “I belong.”

Elder arrived in Augusta more than 45 years ago to much fanfare as the first Black competitor in a tournament that for four decades only included Blacks as caddies or in catering.

Finding a place to eat dinner was difficult — Elder said that was more because he had some 15 people with him than “being segregated against.” Julius Scott, in his first year as president of Paine College, handled the catering for Elder all week.

Elder ended his career with four PGA Tour victories. He played five more times in the Masters, with his best finish a tie for 17th in 1979.

Elder ended his career with four PGA Tour victories. He played five more times in the Masters, with his best finish a tie for 17th in 1979.

From that week, Elder began a relationship with the college.

“Look at old yearbooks and you’ll see pictures of him with the golf team,” said Jones. “He’s made a lot of contributions to the sport.”

“It also gives me great pride to know that my first Masters appearance continues to make a positive impact on others. Throughout my career, helping young men and women achieve their dreams through education has been a cause close to my heart. I am deeply honored to share a connection with Paine College and these scholarships, which will provide life-changing opportunities for the deserving recipients.”