The Big Three continued the tradition that dates back to 1963, when former Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones asked Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod to first perform the act in 1963.
While Thursday’s crowd was enthusiastic, and met the former champions with large rounds of applause, one has to wonder how much longer will they continue in their current role?
“I suppose, as long as they ask me to do it,” Palmer said.
“There’s your answer,” he said.
While it would be great if Palmer could continue hitting the first drive each year, like the late Gene Sarazen did until he was 91, it has become obvious to anyone watching the 84-year-old, four-time former champion that he may not have many swings left.
And, if Palmer — or Augusta National — decides he is done, would Nicklaus and Player want to continue without him?
There have been only nine players chosen to hit the ceremonial first shots — Hutchison, McLeod, Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player have been eight constants. Ken Venturi was the ninth, filling in for Nelson as a favor in 1982, when the two-time Masters champion could not attend the festivities.
Despite the Big Three’s willingness to continue, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne will soon have to consider who the next group will be.
“I was never excited to be an honorary starter,” the 74-year-old Nicklaus said. “I think it’s a nice honor, but to get up at 7 a.m. to hit one golf shot is not exactly something someone wants to do. But Billy Payne asked me, and I said sure, but I told him he should spread the honor around and give some of the other guys a chance. Of course, now that (Payne) has the three of us, he’s not going to let us go, but there are a lot of guys that should be given the chance to hit that first ball, and there are a lot of guys that would be happy to do it.”
While Nicklaus, a six-time Masters champion, spoke in generalities, the 78-year-old Player was more specific.
“(Tom) Watson and (Nick) Faldo,” the three-time Masters champ said. “I think you have to win six majors to be classified a superstar, so that’s where I’d start.”
Watson, who won two Masters titles among his eight total majors, can be considered a no-brainer, but Player’s idea of superstar status leaves his potential list of honorary starters quite thin.
Other than Watson and Faldo, there are only two other living players — outside of the Big Three — who meet Player’s qualification. Tiger Woods, has four Masters titles among his 14 majors, but he is only 38 and has the potential to play in another 25 ore more Masters. Lee Trevino has won six majors, but he has never won a green jacket.
Hutchison and McLeod didn’t win the Masters either. They won the first two Senior PGA championships — which happened to be played at Augusta National — in 1937 and 1938, respectively, but Trevino and the Masters never really got along. He said repeatedly that he always felt like an outsider, and there were years when he skipped the tournament altogether, so the Merry Mex would be a no-go.
Golf Digest’s legendary writer, Dan Jenkins, is covering his 62nd Masters this week. He’s seen all the honorary starters, and he somewhat shares Player’s view.
“Player will still be doing it after he’s dead,” the 84-year-old Jenkins quipped. “But he’s right, it starts with majors. Watson would be next — Faldo, (three-time Masters champion Phil) Mickelson eventually. I don’t think Tiger would ever do it.”
I agree with Jenkins on Woods. Tiger, despite winning four times at Augusta, is not the type that goes out of his way to offer feel-good moments for the fans like a Mickelson, a Palmer or a Nicklaus, so maybe 1968 Masters champion Bob Goalby has the solution.
“Who has the personality? Who has the magnetism,” he asked. “I always used to watch the starters. They were noticeable figures in the game.”
Goalby is right in respect to the starters needing personality. And with fewer players winning multiple majors, let alone multiple Masters, personality becomes a driving force in possible selection.
Once the Big Three is done — and there should be no additional starters until all three decide they are finished — the first group up should be Watson, who is 64 this year, and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
The 62-year-old Crenshaw has always been a crowd favorite. He won one of the most emotional Masters in history in 1995 — when he played following the death of longtime teacher Harvey Penick — and his appreciation of the history of the game, Jones and the Masters as a whole would make him a popular choice.
When Watson and Crenshaw pass the baton, it should be to Faldo. The three-time Masters champion is 56 this year, and though he was considered ultra-focused and somewhat aloof during his playing days, fans have gotten to know him as a more laid-back and approachable person with a great sense of humor through his broadcasting with CBS and Golf Channel.
Faldo should be joined by 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples.
While the 54-year-old Couples has won only the one major, he has been a fixture on the Masters leaderboard since his first appearance in 1983, and that doesn’t look like it is going to change any time soon after shooting an opening-round 71 on Thursday.
Those four players should fill the 20- to 25-year gap to get to Jenkins’ eventual choice, the 43-year-old Mickelson.
Who will join him is still to be decided, but there are between 80 and 100 more majors to get the selection right.
John Bednarowski is sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jbednarowski.