History hangs heavy over Augusta National Golf Club and each year the Masters celebrates the rich legacy of the game of golf. This year, the club recognized Lee Elder who, in 1975, became the first African American to play in the tournament. And among those on hand to honor Elder was Renee Powell, a pioneer as a black woman on the LPGA Tour.
Elder joined Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the first tee Thursday morning to kick off the 2021 Masters as the two men with a combined nine Green Jackets hit the ceremonial opening tee shots. While his health prevented Elder from also hitting a tee shot, his introduction was greeted by a long, warm ovation from the limited number of spectators on hand because of COVID restrictions.
Powell was in a special section on No. 1 tee with other PGA professionals on hand to honor Elder. Among those who made their way out join in the celebration were Masters winners Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
“Lee Elder’s message was that the game of golf belongs to all of us,” Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said in his introduction of Elder.
“I remember every green that I walked up to that day, I got a tremendous ovation,” Elder said about that first round – a 74. “That helped me calm down. That gave me a chance to concentrate a little bit more on my game and just enjoy the moment. Those are great memories I will always have.”
For Powell, seeing Elder honored was a validation of her own journey. She was the second black after tennis great Althea Gibson as an LPGA Tour member. Renee remembers the days when white players had to sneak her into motels that did not allow blacks.
But Powell knew, from the very beginning, that she was part of the LPGA Tour family and that her rivals on the golf course would have her back off it. Other players always traveled with her for safety sake as they drove from tournament to tournament.
“My gosh, this is a truly historic moment,” Powell said on Thursday. “The first black man to play in the Masters and to have that accomplishment recognized here today. I just had to share this moment with Lee. This was a moment for all of us of color who had to work our way up in the game.”
Powell, whose father Bill designed Clearview Golf Club in Canton, Ohio, one of the first integrated golf courses in America, knows full well the obstacles Elder had to overcome to make it on the PGA Tour and to make it into the Masters.
“Lee and I both came onto the Tour in 1967,” Powell said. “We always had that connection. In fact, we knew each other from junior golf even before then.”
They didn’t know it at the time, but Elder and Powell established a bond back then that has endured the decades. They are – each in their own way – seminal figures in the history of the game, true examples that golf belongs to all of us. On Thursday, the Masters honored that journey.