In a ceremonial start unlike any other Thursday morning at the Masters, the opening tee shots were struck by three players who have combined to win 13 green jackets among their 34 majors — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
It was the first time they were together for the first round at Augusta since 2001, when they were in the same group for the opening two rounds. And it was the first time the Masters had three honorary starters since 1999, when Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson struck the ceremonial shots. Sarazen died a month later.
The moment was special enough for three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson to put on his green jacket and show up at the course for the 7:40 a.m. ceremony, even though he was in the last group that teed off at 1:53 p.m. Nicklaus called it a “nice compliment,” while Player said it was an extension of how Mickelson treats fans.
Mickelson clearly knew the significance of the moment. Numbers for the “Big Three” at Augusta National might never be matched. Collectively, they played in 147 Masters, finished first or second 21 times and had a nine-year stretch from 1958 through 1966 during which they won eight times.
Palmer stopped playing the Masters in 2004, Nicklaus a year later and Player in 2009.
That led to the tale — yes, it was a whopper — of how Nicklaus and Player once talked about retiring when they were 35. Good thing they didn’t. Both went on to win four more majors apiece.
“We were going to be 35 and we weren’t going to play anymore,” Nicklaus said. Then, turning to Palmer, he added, “But you said, ‘No, that’s not me. I’m going to keep playing.’”
“That’s right. You guys kept saying you were going to quit at 35. I said, ‘Bull——,’” Palmer replied as the room erupted in laughter. “No more thoughts of quitting at 35 than ...”
“Eighty-two,” Nicklaus said, citing Palmer’s age.
“Hey, if I could do it, I would be doing it right now,” Palmer said.
“I think we all would,” Nicklaus added.
The tradition of a ceremonial starter began in 1963, and back in the day, they played all 18 holes. Over the years, it was reduced to a single tee shot, and while there have been suggestions that Palmer, Nicklaus and Player at least do nine holes, Nicklaus isn’t complaining.
“I think we would all love to play,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any issue about that, but that’s not the deal. The deal is we hit a shot. We all would love to still be able to play, but if you go out and look at where our tee shots were — we all (would) hit 3-woods and a little bit more left after that — you would understand why we aren’t.”
They were called the “Big Three” for more than just the Masters.
Back when no one got rich playing tournament golf, there was extra money to be made in specialty events. They were billed as the “Big Three” in television exhibitions, and they backed it up by winning the most tournaments.
“I think Gary and Jack and myself, we did a lot of television golf, and that’s how the ‘Big Three’ kind of got that name,” Palmer said. “And of course, the record here at Augusta is part of it, too. But the fact that we were together, competing against each other in the early days of television, had a lot to do with the whole thing.”
While they were responsible for attracting so many players to the game — Palmer was the pioneer who made golf appealing to the masses — they now are concerned that too many are leaving. All three are in the golf course design business, which has all but dried up in the United States. Nicklaus cited statistics that showed golf losing 23 percent of women and 36 percent of children since 2006.
The reasons are numerous: a digital era of kids playing more computer games; the cost of playing and the time it takes.
Nicklaus cited a PGA of America program called “2.0,” designed to attract more people to golf.
“It’s to try to make the game easier, make the game faster and make the game less expensive,” he said. “If we can do those kinds of things, we can bring a lot more people in the game and keep them in the game.”