AUGUSTA, Ga. — Of the many stories Lee Elder recounted Wednesday morning at Augusta, it was the simple recollection of a conversation with a friend that spoke the loudest of all.
Elder, who broke the color barrier at the Masters, and Hank Aaron, who would break the all-time home run record in baseball, were two Atlanta-area sporting giants and would become contemporary golfing pals. Once upon a time, they sat comparing notes on what it was like to be a prominent Black athlete in 1970s America, both knowing they represented something so much bigger than numbers in a box score or circles on a scorecard. They were the living promise to the next generation of young minority athletes that there could be a place for them in the games too.
“We talked about … our sports, our particular sport, and the involvement that we felt that we could help other young Blacks that were coming up behind us,” Elder recalled.
And then, with an 86-year-old voice that may be quieted by age but a set of memories unaltered by time, he said, “I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired a lot of young Black players and they will continue on with it.”
Cameron Champ could not have heard their words — the 25-year-old American was decades away from even entering the world. Yet somehow he heard them. And now he lives them.
Passed down through generations they got to him anyway, and here, in 2021, with Augusta National honoring Elder’s 1975 breakthrough by inviting him to join legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player on the ceremonial opening tee, Champ brought those words to life.
Never mind the even-par 72 that put him in striking distance of a first-day leaderboard, where only Justin Rose’s 7 under par was more than three shots away, though that made for a pretty nice start to Champ’s second career Masters. This young, bi-racial man from Texas by way of California endorsed Elder’s legacy just by being in the field, honored Elder’s accomplishments by rising at sunrise to be in that ceremonial gallery, and continued Elder’s fight by speaking up and stepping up for the causes he believes in.
Champ has elevated his voice in new and bolder ways, a self-described journey to discover his profile as a man revealing someone ready to fight for more diversity in golf and more equality in life. Determined to use any success on the course to amplify all of the issues off it, he said Thursday “it’s just about helping others as much as I can. I was given a lot of opportunities as a kid, and I took advantage of them, and I’m sitting here now. For me, it’s just giving the next kid that opportunity.”
That’s how legacies work, and why they are so important to honor. Elder was a favorite player of Champ’s grandfather Mack, who grew up in the Jim Crow south, who would serve in Vietnam, bring home a bride, and move his mixed race family to a more welcoming state across the country. Mack would pass a love of sports to his son (and Cameron’s dad) Jeff, a baseball star who would reach the majors with Baltimore. But to his grandson he gave the gift of golf. He also gave him the gift of perspective, sharing stories of life in a segregated world, urging opportunities in a world that was opening up.
Cameron took it all to heart, and with his late Pops on his mind (Mack died late last year from stomach cancer), he took that walk from the Augusta clubhouse at 7:30 a.m., past the famous oak tree behind Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, former champs both in their green jackets, all of them ready, as Champ said, “to witness history.”
Seven minutes later, Elder would be driven up the same route, his seat of honor in a golf cart allowing room for the oxygen tank behind him, his entrance ahead of Nicklaus and Player a nod to his historic past.
“That was special, seeing Lee pull in,” Jeff Champ said, speaking on the course where he served as leader of a pack of Champ family supporters. “I’ve gotten to know Lee the last two years, to see him pull in there and finally be honored, it gave me tears. It’s a little late, but it’s never too late.”
Time never moves too quickly at Augusta, but for Elder, no indignity or hardship from a visit down memory lane could dim the joy of a present-day trip down Magnolia Lane.
“My heart is very soft this morning, not heavy soft, soft because of the wonderful things that I have encountered since arriving here on Monday and being able to see some of the great friends that I have made over the past years,” Elder said, nodding to the longtime friends seated to his left, Nicklaus and Player.
“What I remember so much about my first visit here was the fact that every tee and every green that I walked on, I got tremendous ovations. I think when you receive something like that, it helps to settle down, because I’ll tell you, I was so nervous as we began play that it took me a few holes to kind of calm down.”
“I still had to concentrate on the game of golf, which was hard for me to do,” he continued. “I think that on several occasions, as I thought about where I was at and where I had come from, was certainly something that was a reminder of, ‘Hey, you’ve worked for this, you have now achieved it. Just relax and enjoy and enjoy the moment. Your life is not going to depend on how well you play. You don’t have to be worrying about carrying anyone on your shoulder.’ ”
Yet Elder’s shoulders proved broad. And strong. Just ask Cameron Champ, who climbed them on the way to building a pretty good set of his own.