The morning was perfect – cool and clear with a dressing of dew on the ground – and so were the tee shots.
First, Arnold Palmer’s, then Gary Player’s and, finally, Jack Nicklaus’, each landing in the middle of the first fairway, dotting the hillside and serving as the ceremonial start to another Masters.
There were cheers and smiles before breakfast. Palmer walks slower now, bent a few degrees forward at the hips, and Nicklaus’ swing has surrendered its power to the years. And then there was Player, eternally energetic, winning the long-drive contest in his first time as a ceremonial starter.
It’s not about how they play now. It’s about how they played for all those years and how they pulled us along with them. The numbers are staggering. Among them, they played 147 Masters, winning 13. In one seven-year stretch in the ’60s, they won every Masters played.
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No wonder they were called the Big Three.
And no wonder Phil Mickelson was on the first tee Thursday morning to watch them together again.
When someone asked if they remembered the first time they saw ceremonial starters at Augusta, Player mentioned seeing Jock Hutchinson and Nicklaus joked that he remembers seeing Arnie as the starter before that.
Palmer, 82, told of hearing Nicklaus and Player tell him they planned to retire at age 35. Palmer’s response at the time – and again Thursday morning – was, well, something you might find on the ground at a cattle ranch.
His recent blood pressure scare resolved, Palmer said “If I could do it, I would be (playing) right now.”
When asked if they might play nine holes rather than just hit an opening tee shot as honorary starters used to do, Nicklaus said that’s not the deal anymore.
“Look at our tee shots,” he said. “We’d all have to hit 3-wood (second shots) and we’d still have a little left (to the green) after that. You see why we aren’t (playing nine).”
No one cares how they play now. It’s how they played before and what they’ve meant across the ages.
They made a pretty morning beautiful.
Then Palmer said it was time to go.
“It’s my breakfast time,” he said.