Friday, April 7
By Bob Harig
Special to ESPN Golf Online
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Lee Elder couldn't wait to get to Augusta National for the final round of The Masters. It was three years ago, and Elder was so excited to arrive for the historic day, he got a speeding ticket on his way to the course. No way he was going to miss Tiger Woods winning The Masters.
After his 12-shot victory, Woods sought out Elder, paying homage to him and other prominent black golfers such as Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, who had been denied a chance to play in the tournament.
"They paved the way," Woods said. "And I thank them."
Elder became the first African-American golfer to participate in The Masters in 1975, and this week marks the 25th anniversary of the occasion. The Golf Writers Association of America will honor Elder at its annual dinner on Wednesday night, and Elder, 65, could not be more proud.
"I really look at it as one of the most significant events ever in golf," said Elder in a recent interview. "I think there was an awful lot of pressure on both sides. I was on a stage that week."
Elder put himself there nearly a year earlier when he won the Monsanto Open in Pensacola, Fla., thus ensuring an invitation to The Masters. Augusta National had been under pressure for several years to invite a black golfer, but resisted under the guise that none had qualified. In 1972, the tournament changed its rules so that any player who won an official PGA Tour event automatically qualified.
Even so, in 1973, a group of 18 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to Masters chairman Clifford Roberts, urging the club to take "affirmative action" and offer an invitation to Elder, who was No. 31 on the PGA Tour in earnings that year. Roberts declined, and so would have Elder.
"I would not accept any special invitation," Elder said. "I wanted to be invited on my own merits, not because I was black."
Elder did so by winning in Pensacola, and the club went out of its way to make him feel welcome. Roberts invited Elder to Augusta in the fall of 1974 for a practice round, gave him twice the usual allotment of guest badges and was there to greet Elder when he arrived at the course for the tournament.
"I was shaking," said Elder, who was 40 at the time. "I rode down Magnolia Lane, and I had heard so much about it. And there I was. It was beautiful."
Elder did not go to his first Masters, however, without a few tense moments.
"Racism was very much a part of the South," he said. "The weeks leading up to that tournament, I got more than a few threatening letters saying I had no right to play. I was very frightened. But I felt once I got to Augusta, I would be safe. The security there was very good.
"But once I left each day, I didn't want to chance anything. I actually had rented two private homes that week because I didn't want people to know where I was staying. The Augusta officials were very good about keeping my location quiet. But I still switched back and forth from house to house. No one except my friends knew where I was."
Elder was greeted by Augusta National's caddies, almost all of whom were black, and they clapped as he walked past. And he was hounded by the media to the extent that Elder requested something unusual for the time: a special press conference. "It lasted two and a half hours," he said.
Elder was paired with Gene Littler in the first round and shot 74. The second day, playing with Miller Barber, he shot 78 and missed the cut. Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe followed Elder, who would play The Masters five more times, his best a tie for 17th in 1979.
"I certainly enjoyed every moment of it," Elder said. "I did not feel racism. Perhaps I had been accepted. The golfing world at that time was so tired of this being blown up, the fact that a black had never qualified for Augusta. It is a place where I wish every minority could have the experience of playing.
"I walked the fairways of the famous Augusta National, where they said no black man would ever play. In that sense, I felt I had accomplished something very important."
|Lee Elder watches one of his drives during the 1975 Masters.|
There are 13 ways to qualify for The Masters, but winning a PGA Tour event is no longer one of them. That's why seven players who would have been in the field this year are not here. For the first time since 1972, winning on tour did not guarantee a spot.
"I think that's a shame," said J.L. Lewis, who won the John Deere Classic in a playoff last year. He didn't know about the new criteria until after he began celebrating his victory.
"I think it's a joke. It's not like there's 144 guys in the field and they couldn't afford to let a few more in," he said. "There's only a little more than 100 guys (actually less than 100). They've got room for six or seven more. I think it's obvious what they're trying to do. They want to make sure a big name wins that tournament."
Augusta National's response?
"We believe our new qualifications identifies the best players in the world," said Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson. "We think we provided ample opportunities to gain entrance in The Masters through our qualifications."
Among the changed criteria were increasing the number of players from the previous year's money list (30 to 40) and taking the top 50 from the World Rankings.
The other players who won within the last year and did not qualify for the Masters are Tom Pernice Jr., Brad Faxon, Rich Beem, Brian Henninger, Olin Browne and Jim Carter.
Winning one week does not assure success the next, but Phil Mickelson
takes confidence into The Masters after his victory at the BellSouth Classic in a sudden-death playoff over Gary Nicklaus. Mickelson joined Woods as the only players on the PGA Tour to win
multiple events this year.
"I chipped and putted extremely well and I drove the ball extremely well," Mickelson said. "If I can have those two elements in my game (at The Masters) at the level they were, I think I'm going to have a very good chance on Sunday."
Fanny Sunesson caddied for Nick Faldo for 10 years, but didn't last two months with Sergio Garcia. They decided to part after The Players Championship. Sunesson will go to work for Fred Funk.
The last 10 winners of The Players Championship were all members of the 1998 Presidents Cup teams, but none went on to win The Masters in the same year.
Colin Montgomerie uses a putting drill that requires him to make 100 2-foot putts in a row, and if he misses, he must start over. "I believe Tiger does it from 6 feet," Montgomerie joked.
Ernie Els has dropped to 11th in the World Rankings, his first time outside of the top 10 since he won the 1994 U.S. Open.
Bob Harig, who covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, writes a column every Tuesday for ESPN Golf Online.