When participants reach the first tee on Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club, they often have to battle their nerves.
And that’s just in the opening ceremony.
Honorary starters have been part of the Masters for more than 50 years, but that doesn’t make the task of hitting a tee shot in front of thousands of patrons any less daunting.
“There will be a little bit of tension, teeing off,” Gary Player said in advance of joining Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in 2012. “Just a little bit of nervousness.”
The formal tradition began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, a pair of major championship winners, starting the tournament. By the 1980s, the rite of spring had evolved with the trio of Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson all hitting opening tee shots. Former CBS analyst Ken Venturi filled in one year.
The ceremony went on hiatus from 2003 to 2006 after the deaths of Sarazen and Snead and Nelson’s decision to bow out. Then club and tournament Chairman Billy Payne persuaded Palmer to hit the tee shot in 2007, and Nicklaus joined him in 2010. The addition of Player brought golf’s “Big Three” together once more.
Even though they are all well past their primes, the competition is still fierce. Each wants to hit the best shot, and 2013 was no exception. Palmer and Player each hit the fairway, but Nicklaus – the youngest of the trio – hit it past them on the left side. In the end, all three smiled and posed for photographs.
“We had fun. That’s what it was all about,” Palmer said. “We’ve been doing it together for all our lives, so it’s a great occasion.”
WHEN DID THE TRADITION BEGIN?
The Masters media guide says the honorary starter tradition began in 1963. Newspaper clippings, however, indicate the tradition started in the 1950s.
“As has been the tradition for years, two grand old champions will start the parade Thursday as the opening twosome,” The Augusta Chronicle reported in 1963.
The earliest records of Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod teeing off together in the first pairing of the tournament came in 1954. Through 1962, the two men would traditionally play nine or 18 holes and then withdraw from the tournament.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the words “honorary starter” were listed next to their names in the list of tee times.
“Leading off the Masters is the greatest honor we can ever have,” Hutchison said in a
1963 interview. “I would rather do this than win a tournament.”
According to an Augusta Herald article, Hutchison turned to McLeod after playing nine holes in 1963 and said, “I beat you on the front nine.”
“You ought to,” McLeod replied, “you’re younger than I.”
Before Hutchison and McLeod hit the opening shots in 1970, they spoke to the media and expressed their amazement at how the game had changed.
“In the old days, I taught from 9 o’clock in the morning to 7 at night, charging $6 an hour,” Hutchison said.
“When I won a tournament, I made only enough money to get home,” McLeod said. “It’s sure different today. It’s big business.”
Hutchison quit as honorary starter in 1973 because of declining health. He was 93 when he died in 1977. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.
McLeod carred on the tradition through 1976. A month later, he died at age 94.
“I have a personal feeling of deep loss,” Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts said. “Freddie’s death brings down the curtain on one of the unusual events that took place here every year, opening things up.”
WHY HUTCHISON AND MCLEOD?
Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod were the first honorary starters at the Masters. Hutchison won the 1920 PGA Championship and added the British Open title in 1921 to become the first U.S.-based player to win that championship.
Hutchison was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, but moved to the United States and became a citizen. McLeod, a Scotsman, won the 1908 U.S. Open.
What the men had in common is that each had won at Augusta National Golf Club. Not the Masters, but the PGA Seniors’ Championship.
The inaugural event was held in 1937, and Hutchison won the 54-hole tournament by eight shots. In 1938, McLeod won the tournament, which had been shortened to 36 holes. He won an 18-hole playoff by two shots.
The tournament was held in Augusta only those two years and later moved to Florida.
NELSON, SARAZEN AND SNEAD
Masters Chairman Hord Hardin revived the tradition of honorary starters in 1981. He chose two of the tournament’s greats, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen, for the opening ceremony.
Nelson had earned his place in tournament lore with his stirring win in 1937 and his playoff victory against boyhood pal Ben Hogan in 1942.
After World War II, he retired from competition but still played in the Masters, and he frequently played with the 54-hole leader in the final pairing, as was the custom.
Sarazen hit the most famous shot in tournament history with his double eagle at the 15th hole in the final round in 1935. He won his only Masters the next day in a 36-hole playoff against Craig Wood.
Nelson stepped aside in 1983 to tend to his ailing wife, Louise, and was replaced by two-time Masters runner-up Ken Venturi.
Nelson returned to action the next year, and he and Sarazen were joined by another golf legend: Sam Snead, a three-time Masters winner.
The trio – with Nelson’s classic swing, Snead’s sharp wit and Sarazen’s unique plus-fours – made Thursday’s opening ceremony a must-see event through 1999. Sarazen died a month after the tournament that year.
Nelson hit his final tee shot in 2001 – “OK, ball, one more time,” he said to his golf ball that morning. He died in 2006 at age 94.
Snead performed the ceremony by himself in 2002, but it was his last time. He died the following month at age 89.