Lee Elder gets long overdue Augusta recognition with 2021 Masters invite

AUGUSTA, Ga. — It was a better-late-than-never gesture.

But it was a sincere and positively necessary one — even if it did come a bit later than it should have.

Augusta National on Monday — essentially the opening day of this year’s November Masters as the world’s best players convened for practice rounds — finally recognized and celebrated Lee Elder, the man who broke the color barrier at Augusta National in 1975.

Fred Ridley, the chairman of Augusta National, announced that Elder, the first man of color to compete in the Masters 45 years ago, will be honored by the club, establishing college scholarships in his name. The club, too, invited him to be an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

The truth is Elder had never been acknowledged enough for breaking the color barrier at Augusta National. So, Monday’s press conference, which the 86-year-old Elder attended alongside with his wife, Sharon, with whom he held hands while Ridley spoke, was touching.

More importantly, it was fitting of the times we live in and long overdue.

“Like all organizations, we’ve been moved by the events of 2020,’’ Ridley said. “There’s been a lot said about racial justice and opportunity, and our question was not so much what can we say, but what can we do. So, I guess I would say that this announcement is in part a call to action in that regard.’’

Augusta National has had its well-documented issues with race relations, dating back to its early years when the only men of color on the grounds were working in the kitchen or wearing white coveralls as caddies.

Asked if he’s “satisfied’’ with the club’s efforts to become more diverse, Ridley said, “I don’t think satisfied would be the right word. I would say that we do have a diverse membership. That has been an increasing fact over the past few years. It will continue to be an increasing fact during my chairmanship.’’

Ridley predictably declined to divulge the number of minority and women members on the club roster, but don’t fool yourself: It remains predominantly made up of white males.

“I think what’s important is that we continue to look at diversity always as we look at our membership,’’ Ridley said. “While progress can always and should be made, and we do have progress to be made, but I can assure you that that is an issue that we’re focused on.’’

Perhaps Monday’s announcement was, in its own way, evidence of that.

“We have had a long relationship with Lee,’’ Ridley said. “This is just a culmination of that great relationship and an opportunity in these times to recognize him for the pioneer that he was, the great citizen that he is and what he’s done for the game of golf, what he’s persevered.’’

Only Elder, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour and eight-time winner on the Senior Tour, truly knows what he persevered in the form of overt and covert racism. He’s been on record in years past about “watch-your-back’’ death threats he received when he was first invited to play the 1975 Masters.

The only place Ridley and Augusta National came up a bit short with this honor was inviting Elder as an honorary starter for only 2021.

When asked to clarify whether Elder would be invited back to hit the first tee shots with Nicklaus and Palmer for as long as they’re alive, Ridley stumbled a bit, saying, “Oh, your question is this going to be a perpetual thing? No, this is a special moment in time.’’

It should be a special moment that goes beyond 2021. Elder’s stamp on this tournament is well worth that honor.

Nonetheless, Elder on Monday called the honor bestowed on him “something that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.’’

“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,” he 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.”

When Elder was making history in 1975, he famously told reporters: “I belong.’’

On Monday after Ridley’s announcement honoring Elder, Tiger Woods tweeted: “We all belong. Such wonderful news to hear from Augusta National in celebration of Lee Elder.’’

Better late than never.

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