Recalling Elder’s trip down Magnolia Lane

Lee Elder arrives at the Masters in 1975.

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Thirty-five years ago, Elder drove down Magnolia Lane and into history as the first black player in the Masters. Elder, now 75, won four times on the PGA Tour and eight times on the Champions Tour. He played in six Masters from 1975 to ’81, with a tie for 17th in 1979 his best finish.

Was playing in the Masters a goal of yours?

I wanted it so badly. When I first qualified for the Tour, in 1967, I said I wanted to get that one thing that had not been accomplished out of the way. The Masters was the one tournament that hadn’t been integrated.

What happened when you won the 1974 Monsanto Open that earned you a spot in the Masters?

When I made the winning putt, I started to walk off into the gallery. (PGA tournament director) Jack Tuthill stopped me and told me he wanted me to ride back in the squad car that was behind the green. I didn’t know why until we got in the car and they said they had received calls that if I won they were going to kill me. We got so many calls like that. It had happened before.

What was the reaction when you drove down Magnolia Lane?

I was so nervous, I was shaking. I arrived in a limo and (tournament chairman) Cliff Roberts met me at the front gate. It was like a three-ring circus. It took an hour to get from the locker room to the putting green. I was asked so many questions.

photo

Lee Elder hits the ball from a bunker on the 18th hole at the 1975 Masters.

What do you best remember from the tournament?

My tee time was 11:15, with Gene Littler. It had been misting rain early in the morning. When I exited through the clubhouse door, the sun broke through. The headlines of the paper the next day said, “Elder brought sunshine to a most dismal day.” I shot 74. I bogeyed the last two holes. I had a decent round going. The next day, I was paired with Miller Barber. I didn’t play too well. I wasn’t used to all the slopes on the greens. I had a lot of three-putts and shot 78. All in all, I really enjoyed it, even though it was tough. I was fortunate to be the person to kick the last door down of enforced segregation. It was my contribution to society.

What happened when you flew to Atlanta 22 years later to witness Tiger Woods become the first black to win The Masters?

We’re driving down the highway, and all of a sudden I see these flashing blue lights and the fellah pulls me over, and I’m talking to him all the while he’s writing the ticket. I said, “Officer, you’re about to witness a historical day in your state of Georgia. An African-American is about to win at Augusta National.” It was a brother. I thought it would be easy for me to get out of it. He handed me the ticket and said, ‘Well, I don’t play golf.’ ”

When you arrived, you had a private moment with Tiger before he teed off. What happened?

Tiger was chipping. We had a few moments together. I told him to keep doing what he was doing and to concentrate on just today’s round. I was so proud. In 1995 when I came here, I watched Tiger play and I told the press, as soon as he gets some more experience I told them he would win here.

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