Thursday, April 9

Today Is 'Lee Elder Day' in Augusta

FORTY YEARS AGO THIS WEEK Lee Elder stayed in two houses in Augusta, Georgia. It wasn't exactly by choice. Whether they came in the mail, over the phone or by some other means, death threats chased Elder all the way to Magnolia Lane and the 1975 Masters.

How did he feel? "Scared to death," he said a few years ago.

At 11 a.m. on Thursday, April 10, 1975, Lee Elder was the first black man to tee off in the Masters Tournament, which began in 1934. After saying a silent prayer, he struck his opening shot in front of thousands of spectators lining both sides of the 1st fairway. The ball flew straight down the middle.

"How I accomplished that I do not know," Elder, 80, told CNN this week.

Somehow Elder got around in 74 that day, not bad for someone who was shaking so badly on the 1st tee that he wondered if he would be able to place his golf ball on the wooden tee.

Elder got his Masters invitation by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open in a sudden-death playoff against Peter Oosterhuis. It had been a long time coming, not just for Elder, but for anyone of his race. Charlie Sifford would have broken the color barrier years earlier had the qualification rules not changed.

Elder didn't make the cut in 1975, but he did make history. That's all that really mattered. That's what's remembered today, four decades later. Instead of carrying their bags or shining their shoes, Lee played golf alongside white men at Augusta National Golf Club as the world watched.

The house-jumping Elder lived to play in five more Masters. His best finish was 17th in 1979. That was the year he also became the first African American to earn a spot on a U.S. Ryder Cup team.

'Lee Elder Day'

Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis has declared today (Thursday) "Lee Elder Day," as Tod Leonard reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Proclamations will be presented.

Elder is at the Masters this week with his wife Sharon. He likes to spend time at the big oak tree near the clubhouse. And he enjoys catching up with old friends. "I've had a lot of good times at Augusta," he told Leonard. "I really have."

Sometime today, instead of picking between two houses like he did forty years ago, Elder will head to The Lodge on Berckmann's Road. That's where he and his wife will attend a private celebration in his honor. Gary Player will be there. So will actor Chris Tucker, TV personality Steve Harvey, NFL great Marcus Allen and singer Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, among others.

On this Thursday, Elder won't have to look over his shoulder or fret about the hardest tee shot of his life.

"The one thing I'm really happy about is that these guys want to do this," he told Leonard. "I really appreciate it."

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