Dermot Gilleece: ‘Bob Jones award another symbolic moment for Elder’

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Dermot Gilleece: ‘Bob Jones award another symbolic moment for Elder’


In 1975, Lee Elder became the first black player to compete in the Masters, before going on to make five further Augusta appearances. Photo: Getty Images
In 1975, Lee Elder became the first black player to compete in the Masters, before going on to make five further Augusta appearances. Photo: Getty Images

When Tiger Woods held a three-stroke lead at half-way in the 1997 US Masters, the host chairman, Jackson Stephens, suspected something historic might be about to happen. So he arranged that contact be made with a rather special Masters participant who lived due south in Florida, 574 miles away.

On receiving the call to be the guest of Stephens at Augusta National for the final round on the Sunday, Lee Elder made preparations for the nine-hour trip from Pompano Beach. He knew his way, having become in 1975 the first black player to compete in the Masters, before going on to make five further Augusta appearances.

Elder became so absorbed in the unfolding story that he incurred a $70 traffic citation from a state trooper on the Sunday morning for speeding at 85mph. “What’s the rush?” he was asked. “I’m heading for Augusta National to watch Tiger Woods win the Masters.” “Who’s Tiger Woods?” mumbled the trooper, with pen in hand. But not even this could diminish Elder’s joy at events later that day.

While he revelled in every moment of a 12-sroke triumph, so did the club’s black waiters who gathered under the famous sprawling oak of the clubhouse lawn to watch their young hero tee-off. And they were there again, later in the day, misty-eyed at his triumphant march up the 18th.

Those precious memories are revived by the announcement that Elder is to become the first African-American to receive the Bob Jones Award. As the US Golf Association’s highest honour for demonstrating the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, it will be presented during US Open week at Pebble Beach on June 12.

The event has an Irish resonance for the 1961 distinction of Joe Carr in becoming the award’s first ‘overseas’ recipient. This was three years after the inaugural Eisenhower Trophy at St Andrews, where he had witnessed Jones, as US captain, being made a freeman of the Royal Burgh.

For Carr and his wife, Dor, the Jones award presentation ceremony was performed at the Biltmore Hotel in New York, as part of the USGA’s annual meeting. “It was a very moving ceremony,” he later recalled. “Dor and I had a lovely time and when I came back home, the whole business received great publicity.

“I accepted it as a gift to Ireland as much as a personal honour, the same as I was to feel about the captaincy of the R and A, 30 years later.”

Unfortunately, Jones himself wasn’t there to present it, but he sent a telegram expressing regret at his absence and delight that the award, bearing his name, should have gone to such a fine sportsman. Six years later, they met at Augusta National where Carr made the first of three Masters appearances.

Meanwhile, some hours after Woods had played himself into history, I happened to meet Elder over an evening meal in the Olive Garden restaurant on Washington Road. Utterly charming, he proceeded to inform me of a planned trip to Royal Portrush in July of that year to compete in the Senior British Open. Which led him to enquire: “How is Christy, I mean Christy Senior? I’m looking forward to meeting him at Portrush. We met in several events, including the 1969 Lancome Tournament in Paris, when we were paired together.”

What were his memories of Himself? “I remember him as one of the greatest players I’ve ever seen,” Elder replied, and he seemed genuinely pleased to hear that O’Connor was still swinging the club as sweetly as ever.

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On returning home to Dublin, I made a point of telling the great man of my meeting with an old contemporary. Exercised by the curse of slow play, Himself spoke of a memorable round he and Elder had played in the Dunlop Masters at St Pierre more than 20 years previously.

“We were first off the tee and I remember asking Lee how he liked to play,” he began. “He replied that he liked to get on with it. So we did.”

In fact they progressed at such a pace as to draw a reprimand from the PGA – for being too quick. “But the quality of our golf didn’t suffer,” insisted O’Connor. “I parred the short 18th for a 68 and Lee had a 69. And we completed the round in two and a quarter hours.

“The biggest factor in slowing down play in the professional game was when they stopped having 36 holes in one day. Before that, if we didn’t play smartly there wouldn’t be time for a snack between rounds. And prize money shouldn’t be an excuse. I played for big money but it didn’t slow me down.”

O’Connor had a special affection for Portrush, which marked his first appearance in the Open Championship in 1951, when he was tied 18th behind Max Faulkner. By 1997, however, the years were taking their toll, and while Elder had rounds of 76, 74, 75, 75 to be 63rd behind Gary Player, O’Connor missed the cut after shooting 77, 78.

Though he gained Ryder Cup honours in 1979, the perennial quest of acceptance seemed to be Elder’s raison d’etre. He looked to follow his Masters breakthrough by becoming the first of his race to captain a major team, and in a letter to US Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, his wife, Sharon, outlined why her husband should skipper the American President’s Cup side in South Africa in 2002. She pointed to the barrier he broke as Player’s guest during the repressive days of apartheid. In fact several return visits led to a school there being named after him.

“I think it should carry some weight that I was the first black to play multi-racial sport in South Africa,” he said. “To captain the President’s Cup team would just about outweigh it all.”

But it didn’t happen.

Born on July 14, 1934, Elder saw the Woods achievement of 1997 as “the bridge to the past for me and the bridge to the future for himself.” Sadly, his dream of a great new world for African-American golfers never really materialised.

Which makes the upcoming Bob Jones Award all the more significant.

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