Elder makes more history at Augusta

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John Bednarowski, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.
·4 min read
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Apr. 8—Lee Elder said he sat in Hank Aaron's office not long before the Braves' legend passed away.

It was a day of sharing memories.

"We talked about several things ... our sports, our particular sport, and the involvement that we felt that we could help other young Blacks that was coming up behind us," Elder said. "And I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue on with it."

Elder made another memory, and likely inspired people of all races on Thursday, as he joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters of the 85th Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club.

Elder was the first Black man to play in the Masters back in 1975. He would eventually go on to play in the tournament six times, but before his first appearance, he got death threats from people who said no Black man would ever play at Augusta National. It was an unacceptable situation he was forced to endure, not unlike Aaron, who got similar threats as he approached Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs. Later in life, Elder would often host Aaron's fundraising golf tournaments at Chateau Elan in Braselton, but they could look back and point to April 1974 as seminal moments in both of their careers.

On April 8, 1974 Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Ruth's record. Two weeks later, Elder won the Monsanto Open to earn his invitation to play in the Masters.

The ceremony was a culmination of a big few months for him in Augusta. Last November, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley announced that the club would endow a pair of scholarships in Elder's name to be presented to players at Paine College, a Historically Black College and University in Augusta — one for the men's team and one for the soon to be founded women's team.

On Tuesday, the 86-year-old received an honorary doctorate from Paine to honor his life as someone who helped break down barriers. And on Thursday, 47 years to the day that Aaron became the Home Run King, Elder became the first Black man to be an honorary starter at Augusta.

"For me and my family, I think it was one of the most emotional experiences that I have ever witnessed or been involved in," Elder said.

"It's a great honor, and I cherish it very much, and I will always cherish it."

NICKLAUS WORKS TOO HARD: In 1959, Nicklaus made his Masters debut.

At the time, all players used Augusta National caddies and Nicklaus recalled he was assigned someone he only knew as "Pon," who was from Atlanta. Nicklaus didn't make the cut that year but said he felt like he had played fairly well.

When he returned to Augusta the following year, the caddie master told "Pon" that Nicklaus had arrived and was ready to play, but the caddie was having none of it.

He said, "Well, I don't want to caddie for Mr. Nicklaus."

"Why don't you want to caddie for Mr. Nicklaus?" The caddie master asked.

"He worked too hard," Pon, said. "He comes too early and leaves too late. I don't want to work that hard."

The caddie master turned to the other caddies in the room and asked if there was anyone who would want to caddie for Nicklaus. Willie Peterson raised his hand.

"I'm not afraid of working," he said.

Nicklaus was low amateur in 1960, tying for 13th with Peterson on the bag. It was the start of a seven year run where Nicklaus won three times and finished no lower than 15th.

"Willie was with me for five of my Masters wins," Nicklaus said.

That included 1975, the fifth victory, when he made a 40-foot putt on the 16th hole to help hold off Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf.

"Willie never read a green for me," Nicklaus said. "He never picked a club out of the bag, but Willie sure was enthusiastic.

"The putt I made in '75 on the 16th hole, Willie started waving his towel, and when he started waving it, he waves it right down as the ball went in the hole and he missed the ball by about that far (Nicklaus held his fingers about four inches apart to a room of laughter). He was wonderful."