Lee Elder Masters honorary starter with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player

Fans wear masks on their return to Augusta as The Masters welcomes back patrons for the first time in two years… with Lee Elder, the first black golfer to EVER play the event, joining Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as an honourary starter

  • The 85th Masters tournament has now got under way at Augusta National
  • As is tradition, the competition was launched with honorary starters on the tee
  • Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were joined by Lee Elder on Thursday morning
  • Elder, now 86, was the first black golfer to compete in the tournament in 1975 

Masters patrons returned to Augusta National for the first time in two years on Thursday for the 85th edition of golf’s most prestigious tournament.

With last year’s edition postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, then subsequently taking place in November without fans, it was a welcome sight to see them back at the famous old course in Georgia – all wearing face masks. Around 10,000 fans were expected on day one, with Augusta running at around a quarter capacity due to coronavirus restrictions.

Legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player welcomed a very special guest on the first tee as 86-year-old Lee Elder, the first black man ever to play at the Masters back in 1975, joined them as an honorary starter. 

Lee Elder (left) joins Gary Player (centre) and Jack Nicklaus (right) on the first tee at Augusta

Patrons gather at Augusta National ahead of the first day’s play at the 85th Masters

Fans were all wearing face masks with Covid restrictions still in place for the tournament

Now, the famous competition has finally started to confront its uncomfortable and racially tainted past.

Elder was a pioneer in men’s golf after Augusta National changed its ways in 1975 and finally permitted black athletes, in a move which was greeted with fury and hostility.

Prior to Elder’s participation, the Masters tournament permitted only caddies of the golfers to be black as the sport stuck to its rigid and dated ways.

Elder, now 86, was subjected to a torrent of abuse after qualifying for the tournament in 1975 and had to rent two houses to stay in during the competition, switching between each at random in order to confuse his antagonisers and reduce fears over his safety.

Lee Elder watches his shot playing as the first black man ever at The Masters in 1975

In his maiden appearance, Elder shot 74 and 78, missing the cut as a result. 

He would go on to play in the tournament five other times, with his best finish a T-17 on the leaderboard in 1979. 

Though he came first, Elder was not actually the first black golfer to qualify for the Masters. 

Charlie Sifford won two recognised PGA Tour events in the sixties, but was shamefully refused entry to the Masters because ‘he didn’t meet the qualifications’. 

Speaking back in November after receiving his invite to become an honorary starter, Elder said: ‘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.

‘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.’

Elder’s appearance was a step in the right direction for the Masters after a racially-tainted past

Teeing off alongside Elder, 80-year-old Nicklaus still stands as the most decorated name in golf history.

The ‘Golden Bear’ has more majors to his name than anybody else, with 18 victories in total and an unrivaled six victories at the Masters.

South African star Player has three wins at the Masters, and ended his storied career in golf with nine majors to his name.  

With the formalities completed, American Michael Thompson got the tournament proper under way alongside compatriot Hudson Swafford.

Thompson dropped a shot on the first but bounced back immediately to birdie the par-five second, while Swafford’s birdie on the same hole took him into the early lead on one under.

Former champion Sandy Lyle began his 37th consecutive Masters appearance with a par on the first.

South African legend Gary Players tees off at the first to get the 85th edition under way

Jack Nicklaus – golf’s most-decorated player – tees off on the first hole at Augusta

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