Through the mist he appeared in a doorway of the Augusta National clubhouse, his forehead creased, his eyes heavy from haunted sleep. Out stepped Lee Elder, dressed in shades of green, carrying his thoughts into the moist Georgia morning. For months the hate mail had said he would never make it to this day in April 1975. Watch your step when you get to Augusta, other letter writers warned him. There will be blood.
To be safe, he had rented two houses in town and kept moving between them, the former golf-course hustler playing the odds. He made sure he had people around him when he ate his meals. He was as inconspicuous as a man whose face was all over the evening news could be.
Elder made his way to the 1st tee, where no black man had ever gone during Masters week without carrying a 50-pound bag and wearing a white coverall. Elder was there with a golf ball and a few tees. In front of thousands of eyes he reached down, stuck a peg in the soft soil and placed his ball on top of it. He took a deep breath. He told himself to relax. And then he prayed silently in front of his hushed audience: O Lord, please don't let me embarrass myself.
Thirty-three years later there is great anticipation focused on another black man teeing it up at Augusta, but it's less about race and sociology and more about winning the Grand Slam. Winner of seven of his last eight events worldwide, Tiger Woods arrives next week as the overwhelming favorite to win his fifth Masters and continue a run at immortality.
But even as Woods thrives as the No. 1 golfer and most popular athlete in the world, an entire sport riding his red shirttails, old racial tensions occasionally reverberate through the game. In the unique case of Augusta National, with its Old South heritage seemingly frozen in time a patrician and male white membership, aging blacks on the service staff and plantation-style buildings a sense of the segregated past still lingers beneath the din of back-nine Sunday roars.
When Elder's left-to-right tee shot touched down on Augusta National's 1st fairway, it broke one of the last racial barriers in sports. Yet it did not free him from his memories of black children blown up in church, the murder of Martin Luther King Jr., cities set on fire. America was still grappling with integration, and Elder was in the middle of it.
Man, the stories he could tell. There was the time in Pensacola, Fla., when Elder and the PGA Tour's other black players were forced to change their clothes in the parking lot because club members wouldn't allow them in the clubhouse. Or the time in Memphis when the harassment of Elder escalated from his ball mysteriously disappearing on the course to a late-night phone call that awakened Elder in his hotel room. "N-----," the voice said, "you better not win this golf tournament." Elder played the rest of the tournament with a police escort.
It was then that Elder accepted the fact that he might not grow old. Any one of those threats could be real. Any one of the crackpots flooding him with hate mail might come after him with a gun. Would it be someone following him in the gallery, or standing near the putting green, or sitting in the clubhouse parking lot?
"It's hard to explain what it was like for Lee," says Gary Player, who as apartheid reigned in 1971, boldly invited Elder to play in the South African PGA Championship. Lee accepted. "How do you explain," asks Player, "what it was like being a Jew during the war?"
How do you explain that in 2008, before the season was even a month old, the golf world was tripping all over itself on the issue of race?
The two winning streaks overlapped for a time, though reported in separate sections of the newspaper. The biracial candidate for president was stumping in New Orleans and Richmond and Madison, scooping up delegates, winning 11 contests in a row in February. That was the number of consecutive tournament victories the multiracial golfer was chasing Byron Nelson's record, one of the most hallowed in the game. Woods had won in Chicago and Atlanta to end the 2007 season. He bested the fields in San Diego, Tucson and Orlando in the first 11 weeks of '08.
At a point when the momentum and the buzz were building for each man, an insensitive remark interrupted the discussion like a tray of dishes crashing to the floor. For Barack Obama it was the unearthing of incendiary sermons earlier this decade by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, regarding U.S. policy. For Woods it was an offhand remark by Golf Channel commentator Kelly Tilghman during the Mercedes-Benz Championship, a January tournament in which he wasn't even playing. During the telecast analyst Nick Faldo remarked that fellow pros would have to gang up on Woods to stop his victory march, after which Tilghman suggested they "lynch him in a back alley." Tilghman was suspended for two weeks. After Golfweek used an image of a noose on the cover to peg a story inside about the controversy, editor Dave Seanor lost his job.
"[Tilghman's] statement was very harsh; I thought it warranted a longer suspension," says Elder. "The noose on the cover went a little far."