A Detroit News photographer was shadowing him on the golf course, the Los Angeles Times' Jim Murray was around somewhere and Lee Elder was trying to accommodate everybody. Walking the 10th fairway, Elder found himself matching strides with a sporting-goods executive who was urging him to endorse a new driver. When Elder slipped away for a moment, the fellow whispered, "You can get a lot of mileage out of Lee right now. A lot of mileage."
As the afternoon wore on, the distractions began taking their toll. Lee Elder was playing in a pro-am tournament at Los Angeles' Bel-Air Country Club, hardly a blue-chip event. But no self-respecting pro could be happy about the four-foot putt Elder blew on one hole or the three-footer that refused to fall a moment later. Other calamities followed and after struggling to a four-over-par 74, a dispirited Elder told his amateur partners, "I'm sorry I let you guys down." Trudging up a hill leading to the clubhouse, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Elder added, "I'll be plenty glad when all this stuff is over."
For Elder it will all be over next month. On Thursday, April 10 he finally will tee off at the Augusta National Golf Club, becoming the first black golfer ever to play in the Masters. With black athletes long since prominent in other sports, the moment may have an almost quaint, old-newsreel quality. Still, golf is basically a white man's game and Augusta is a relic of the Old South that until now found a place for blacks only as waiters and caddies. And when Robert Lee Elder, high school dropout, ex-hustler and product of the ghettos of Dallas and Los Angeles, drives down Magnolia Lane to play in the Masters, it surely will be an emotional scene.
Having already gone through many mini-scenes—more than 10 months' worth, in fact—Elder himself could scarcely be unimpressed by the occasion. After winning the Monsanto Open at Pensacola last April 21, the victory that earned him his long-sought Masters invitation, he was given the key to the city in Washington, D.C., where he has made his home for 13 years, and hardly a week went by that he was not acknowledging standing ovations at places like the National Press Club. Gerald Ford played golf with him, a distinction he shares with Jack Nicklaus, and the President was one of 1,200 well-wishers who turned out last December for a $50-a-plate testimonial to Elder at the Washington Hilton, the proceeds going to a new Lee Elder scholarship fund.
At 40, just the age for taking stock, Elder is gracious enough to overlook the fact that Arnold Palmer fetched $250 a plate at his testimonial last month in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding Elder's desire to have the Masters over and done with, he says feelingly, "This is the greatest thing that ever happened to me, no doubt about it. I'm excited about going to Augusta. It's a chance to spread good relations between people and it's a chance for me to make some money."
But Elder is under strain. Nicknamed "Flip" by his fellow pros because he is often mistaken for comedian Flip Wilson, he is ordinarily an easygoing fellow who shrugs off talk of pressure on the PGA tour by invoking his decade on the predominantly black United Golfers' Association circuit. With a chuckle, he says, "When you check into a motel and need to win the tournament to pay the bill, man, that's pressure." In the months since winning the Monsanto, though, it has dawned on Elder that adulation can bring almost as many problems as adversity.
Some of the problems are physical. A casualty of the banquet circuit, the 5'8" Elder is 10 pounds overweight at 185, and this has not helped a chronic sore back. There are also signs of edginess. During the Bel-Air pro-am, Elder at one point accidentally snapped his putter in two. "Now don't anybody think that I lost my temper," he cautioned onlookers. "I thought the shaft was crooked and I was only trying to straighten it. I didn't do it on purpose." He smiled tightly, adding, "I would've liked to, but I didn't."
The pressures that Elder felt at Bel-Air have also plagued him in PGA competition. After joining the tour in 1968, a battle-hardened rookie of 33, Elder quickly established himself as the best of the handful of black pros on the circuit. He finished 30th on the money list the last two years, swelling his career winnings to $365,320. But until last week's Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic, he had missed the cut in four straight tournaments—and there he was 69th. His best finish this year has been a tie for 36th in the Tucson Open and his winnings for 1975 are a mere $1,345.
Thrust suddenly onto center stage, Elder has been playing some of the worst golf of his career—and the one development is largely responsible for the other. Two weeks ago, just before missing the cut in the Los Angeles Open, Elder sat in the kitchen of the house where he was staying and said, "I had a little letdown after winning the Monsanto, and I guess that was natural. I also got away from golf a little and I've had trouble relaxing because the phone doesn't stop ringing. I appreciate the columnists and the other people calling, but it's not helping my golf game any."
Later that morning Elder was about to leave for the golf course when he discovered that an old friend who was to accompany him, a physician, had gone to the store to buy film. When the doctor returned, Elder demanded, "How would you like it if I went for film when you had an operation to perform?" Arriving at the Riviera Country Club, he found traffic backed up. Other golfers were caught in the congestion, too, but Elder seemed to take it personally.