Lee Elder, who in recent weeks has quite smoking, started running, lost 14 pound and averaged a hefty 74.44 strokes per round, was hitting short irons on the practice range at Augusta National Golf Club at 1 o'clock this afternoon, about 24 hours before he would tee off in the first round of the Masters Tournament.
A voice called out from a cluster of onlookers 40 feet away: "Hey, Lee." Elder turned and scoured the group, thinking he was being hailed by one of the 15 hometown friends from Washington, D.C., who have come to cheer him on in this golf sanctuary among the azaleas and dogwood.
Elder didn't see any familiar faces. The voice spoke again. "Could you give me a big smile?" asked a dapper, silver-haired man. Elder obliged, and the man's wife clicked away with her Instamatic.
"Cora will love that," the man said as Elder went back to work.
Cora is a black woman who works in his office, the man explained. "She asked me, 'Is Lee Elder playing this year?' She thinks he's the greatest. I'm going to ask him to autograph a visor for her later on.She'd love that."
It has been six years since Elder became the first black to play in the Masters and, as such, an international cause celebre whose every move was scrutinized. Nowadays, he says, "the curiosity is gone, and I'm just another player."
But he remains a gallery favorite at Augusta, the common man's hero. Cora is not alone. Limousine drivers ask Elder for autographs, and everyday folks snap his photo and make small talk. In this playground of the southern gentry, he is a reminder that the heavenly scenery and pleasures of springtime at Augusta belong not only to aristocrats. He occupies a special place at the Masters, and this is not lost on those progressive club officials who were delighted that he qualified in 1975 and ended annual accusations of racism.
Elder knows he always will be more than "just another player" here.
He would love to do well, but at age 46, he is struggling with his game. In 1978, his best season, he won $152,198 and finished 13th on the PGA tour earnings list. Last year, he made $17,693 and finished 129th, his worst showing since joining the tour in 1968.
In 10 tournaments so far this year, Elder has made the second-round cut six times and earned $6,366 with a stroke average of 72.26. His best finish was a tie for 29th at Tucson, the season opener.
The last two months have been the worst. He hasn't shot a round below 70 since the Hawaiian Open in mid-February. In 14 rounds since, his stroke average has been 74.44.
"I'm happy with the way I'm striking the ball," Elder said. "My putting is the thing that's been bothering me. It's up and down, mostly down."
His "realistic" goal for this Masters is to finish among the top 24 in the field of 82, which automatically would qualify him for a 1982 invitation back. "Anything beyond that will be welcome, but I would be happy with that," he said.
Except for his putting touch, Elder is feeling great. In Los Angeles in February, a doctor did some tests and discovered that the knee ailment that always was thought to have been an inflammation of an old sandlot football injury was caused by a circulation problem in his right leg. The doctor prescribed a diet and exercise and told Elder, a chain smoker, to give up the cursed weed.
"It was tough at first, but I'm down to 176 pounds from 190 at this time a year ago, and I'm running two miles a day. The more I run the better I feel," Edler said.
Now if he only could make some putts, he would be a happy man.
If they can get synchronized, Lee Elder and his balky putter, a woman named Cora, 15 visiting Washingtonians and a lot of little people in Augusta will be tickled pink as the azaleas.