At 7:37 a.m., Elder was driven in a golf cart from the clubhouse to the first tee box for the honorary starter ceremony to begin the 2021 Masters Tournament. The 86-year-old had a full set of clubs on the rear of the cart, but none would be touched.
In the end, it didn’t matter.
Elder owned the tee box – receiving a minute-long ovation from hundreds of patrons that included former Masters champions Phil Mickelson, Nick Faldo, Bubba Watson and Charles Coody. Also in attendance was Cameron Champ, the only African-American in the field this year.
Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley opened the ceremony by praising Elder, and reflected on his history as a trailblazer at the Masters Tournament. In 1975, Elder became the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters, and Thursday became the initial African-American honorary starter.
“Today Lee Elder will inspire us and make history once more,” Ridley said. “Lee, you have the honors.”
Elder’s family watched from the right side of the tee box. They donned green hats that said 1975 on the front and “Stay the Course — Lee Elder” on the side.
Elder rose from a white chair, and soaked in the applause.
Elder’s family confirmed that a decision was made last week that he would not hit the tee shot. Elder, who contracted the COVID-19 virus, had been forced to use an oxygen machine since his hospitalization, the family stated.
“I told Lee, if he could have hit the tee (shot), there’s no way in the world he wouldn’t outdrive me,” Nicklaus said. “He said, ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Well, then I got you by three yards because you didn’t hit.
At Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, Ridley had invited each of the past winners to attend and promised to save them a chair on the front row.
“It’s been a very long time since I’ve come to this,” Faldo said of the honorary starter ceremony. “But I didn’t want to miss this one. Today was an important day and I’m very honored to be here.”
Following Elder’s moment, 85-year-old Gary Player striped a drive up the first fairway. Jack Nicklaus followed suit. But the conversation outside of the ropes remained on Elder.
Tom Lehman, the 1996 Open Championship winner, watched the ceremony near the clubhouse with NBC commentator Mike Tirico. As Elder rode by, Lehman turned to Tirico and asked, “Is this Lee’s first time doing this?”
“It is,” Tirico said. “And this is a big deal.”