News & Opinion

With Lee Elder as its guide, Augusta National continues to evolve

Lee Elder
Lee Elder

The club taps Elder as an honorary Masters starter in 2021 and will help fund golf at Augusta's Paine College, in Elder's name

Not that many years ago, Augusta National Golf Club stood as an anachronism regarding race and gender issues. The Masters Tournament, traditionally the first major championship on the PGA Tour schedule, was tainted by its relationship with Augusta National because of the club’s discriminatory policies.

Thirty years ago, the club admitted its first man of color as a member, and a few women have been welcomed in recent years. On Monday, club chairman Fred Ridley refocused the lens yet again on how Augusta National can drive change in society.

The club made two extraordinary commitments to Lee Elder, the first Black golfer to compete in the Masters. First, and most visibly, Augusta National announced that Elder will be one of the ceremonial starters at the Masters in 2021. Second, and perhaps most meaningfully, the club has established the Lee Elder Scholarships at Paine College, a historically Black school in Augusta. The financial commitment will create two golf scholarships annually: one male and one female, despite the fact that Paine does not field a women’s golf program.

“But that will change today with our commitment that Augusta National will provide 100 percent of the funding needed to launch a women's golf program at Paine College,” Ridley said, “allowing black men and women the opportunity to pursue their dreams on the golf course, in the classroom and throughout their lives and careers.”  

The announcement, at the beginning of the week for the 84th Masters, was similar to Ridley’s first news conference as chairman, in 2018, when he introduced the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. The tournament, with the final round at Augusta National, became a big part of Masters week when it debuted last year.

Elder, 86, defied physical threats to compete in the 1975 Masters, a spot earned by his first PGA Tour victory, at the 1974 Monsanto Open. He missed the cut in that debut Masters, but he would go on to win three more times on the PGA Tour in the 1970s. He became the first Black to compete in the Ryder Cup, playing for the Americans’ victorious 1979 team. He competed in five more Masters Tournaments in 1977-81, making three cuts, including two top-20 results. In the 1980s, Elder won eight times on the Senior PGA Tour, known today as the Champions Tour.

Elder will be joined on the first tee to start the 2021 Masters by two of the event's living legends: six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and three-time champion Gary Player. The third spot in the ceremonial threesome has been vacant since Arnold Palmer died on Sept. 25, 2016.

In a year of pandemic and racial divide in America, Ridley found a way to create a silver lining in a 2020 that many of us would like to forget. His continuing efforts to transition Augusta National from a bastion of discrimination to a beacon for minorities and women is a laudable goal. 

Augusta National’s initiatives might be limited to golf, but the efforts continue to help advance our society toward substantive change.

Ridley, 68, a former U.S. Amateur champion and attorney, has been full of surprises in his three years as head of America’s most influential golf club. His initiatives not only have been praiseworthy but present an exciting future for golf’s efforts toward making the world a place where discrimination is something read in history books and not practiced as a matter of course.

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