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Breaking barriers at Augusta and in Washington

Lee Elder waves to the gallery before the ceremonial 1st tee in the first round of the Masters yesterday (Photograph by Matt Slocum/AP)

On Thursday morning, Lee Elder's car will turn off Washington Road and make its way down Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club. On the first tee, he will join legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in striking ceremonial tee shots that will formally open this year's Masters.

Makes you think of all those times Elder's car would have turned off Benning Road and onto 26th Street NE, pulling up to Langston Golf Course, his home track for all those years.

Elder is 86. He was born in Texas and raised in Los Angeles. Forty-six years ago, he became the first Black golfer permitted to play in the Masters. There should be both a celebration that he did so and shame and regret that it took so long. Either way, the mere act of teeing it up, of competing after others were prohibited, mattered.

"He was the first," Tiger Woods said after he became the first Black man to win the Masters, 22 years after Elder first competed and 24 years before Elder would be invited to join Nicklaus and Player. "He was the one that I looked up to. And because of what he did, I was able to play here, which was my dream."

It resonated then, and it resonates now. Elder's journey will be retold this week because of his appearance at Augusta National. Nowhere should that matter more than in Washington.

Elder's connection to the nation's capital, to Langston, is long and deep. He met his wife, Rose, at an event staged there by the all-Black United Golf Association. In the 1960s, he taught golf to Washington's youth there. He played annually at the old Capital City Classic there. He began pursuing the idea of managing the facility in the early 1970s and was granted the right to do so in 1978. He hosted iconic comedian Bob Hope. He hosted iconic basketball player Bill Russell. He saved Langston at a time when it might have wasted away into the Anacostia River.

In revisiting what Elder meant to Black golfers at the Masters, it's worth thinking about what Langston has meant to Black golfers in Washington. Elder's life and career and mission are woven into all that.

Around the First World War, the District was essentially segregated. Nowhere was that more apparent than in its public recreation facilities. The golf course at East Potomac Park, which is still functional today, hosted White golfers and was in good enough shape to stage the US Amateur Public Links Championship in 1923. Black golfers were left to a nine-hole track with sand greens just to the northwest of the Lincoln Memorial, a facility that not only was in various states of disrepair but was threatened by the building of the Memorial Bridge.

According to an exhaustive research paper written by historian Patricia Kuhn Babin, Black golfers in the District of Columbia pleaded with federal and Congressional officials to provide them a place to play.

"Every time a coloured citizen looks upon the beautiful, well-kept golf links at East Potomac Park for example, whether he be a citizen of Washington or elsewhere, he naturally has a keen sense of the injustice of his exclusion, a feeling which is growing more pronounced and more widespread every day," sociologist and civil rights activist Dwight Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a letter to the director of the agency that oversaw the city's golf courses. "I will not be surprised, therefore, to find a movement of protest very rapidly crystallising in the very near future."

That's the backdrop. Not just for golf here but for golf across the country.

Finally, after a decade of fighting, the course along the Anacostia and Kingman Lake opened in 1939. It took its name from the housing development that stood nearby, which had been named after John Mercer Langston, the first Black congressman from Virginia and the first dean of the law school at Howard University.

The course quickly became a haven for Black golfers and a pull to celebrities. Joe Louis, the former heavyweight champion, played there so often that a large tree at the par-5 third hole is called the "Joe Louis Tree" because he so frequently he hit his ball there. Charlie Sifford, the first Black player on the PGA Tour, played there. Calvin Peete, a longtime PGA touring pro, showed up repeatedly. Muhammad Ali dropped by.

But the truth is, for years - even after the city's public courses integrated - Langston wasn't in very good shape. That, in part, drove Elder's quest. Shouldn't a course with a history of catering to Black citizens have the same conditioning as its counterparts?

"Give me a year," Elder told The Washington Post in 1978. "Come back next year at this time and judge me. Someday I hope to have this baby . . . in good shape, a first-class public golf course."

He experimented with different kinds of grass. He built a driving range. And he wanted very much to involve kids, starting a caddie programme so they could make money and offering lessons to local schoolchildren.

It's amazing how golf's themes and problems carry from generation to generation. Elder's story is hailed as one that helped desegregate the game. But pushing half a century since he became the Jackie Robinson of Augusta National, check out the Masters field. The players hail from all over the world. They are overwhelmingly White.

Which brings us back to Langston. Elder's run at managing the old course ended in 1981 in a dispute with the National Park Service and his insurance company. It shuttered, was revived and has sputtered along.

Now, there's real hope. Last year, the NPS awarded the right to operate and overhaul the city's three municipal courses to a group called the National Links Trust. Its mission: redesign East Potomac, Rock Creek and Langston to make them more interesting as golf courses but simultaneously keep them affordable. Along the way, draw more kids into the game because that's the only way the sport has a future of growth - by being inclusive.

And so on Saturday, the National Links Trust will hold a lunch event honouring Elder's accomplishments and history. It's a way to tie the present to the past. In the years ahead, Langston is supposed to serve as the home course for the new Howard golf team that's being started in part with funding from NBA star Stephen Curry. It's a way to make sure the course has a relevant future.

When Elder steps to the first tee Thursday morning, it will remind golf fans that people who looked like him could not always play in the Masters. It might spur Washingtonians to travel out to the old public track he used to manage. Lee Elder represents golf's struggle for inclusivity - at Augusta and beyond.

Barry Svrluga became a sports columnist for The Washington Post in December 2016. He arrived at the Post in 2003 to cover football and basketball at the University of Maryland and has covered the Washington Nationals, the Washington Football Team, the Olympics and golf

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Published April 09, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated April 08, 2021 at 6:57 pm)

Breaking barriers at Augusta and in Washington

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