Player, Palmer and Nicklaus hit honorary tee shots to open Masters
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are no longer Masters Tournament competitors, but they showed Thursday morning they still have plenty of game.
All three men hit the fairway with their tee shots as honorary starters to begin the 76th Masters.
Although the trio hardly needed any introduction to the patrons who lined the first tee and down the fairway, Augusta National Golf Club chairman Billy Payne did so anyway.
“Three great legends, three great men,” Payne said.
Palmer, 82, teed off first. He hit it straight down the fairway.
Next up was Player, who was making his debut as an honorary starter. The 76-year-old bombed his shot down the right center of the fairway.
Up last was Nicklaus, 72. His tee shot found the left center of the fairway.
True to his word, Player hit the longest tee shot.
“I don’t think any of us can see that far,” Nicklaus quipped. “We can hear them land, though.”
The Big Three dominated professional golf in the 1960s and won a total of 13 Masters. From 1958-66, the men collected all but one of the green jackets.
The three combined for 147 appearances at the Masters, with Player’s 52 starts the record.
“It was a great thrill, having had this wonderful relationship, great friendship with Arnold and Jack for a long, long time and having traveled extensively around the world together,” Player said.
A recent health scare caused Palmer to miss the trophy ceremony for his tournament at Bay Hill, which was won by Tiger Woods.
“I missed not being there for Tiger,” said Palmer, adding he was fine now. “I’ve been there for all of his victories, and of course I really wanted to be there.”
The trio was asked about the first time they saw honorary starters at the Masters, and Player answered that he recalled seeing the tournament’s first starters, Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod. Nicklaus brought laughter with his response.
“Mine was a long time ago,” Nicklaus deadpanned. “I saw Arnold Palmer hit one.”
Onlookers filled the balcony of the clubhouse. Three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson stood behind the first tee to take in the special moment.
“That was cool,” Mickelson said. “That was cool.”
The gesture was not lost on the Big Three.
“I thought it was wonderful he came out,” Palmer said.
THE BIG THREE ON TODAY’S ISSUES
Q: Could each of you talk about what design influences from Augusta National are most prominent in your own work, and is there one course where we can see Augusta in your work?
GARY PLAYER: Now if we do have one for a championship, we copy certain things, but generally speaking, we build them softer, not as undulating of greens and not as long and not as difficult, because generally speaking, I think that’s what’s hurting golf. The golf courses are too tough, they are too long, the experiences are so high, the water, the machinery, the oil, the labor, and that’s what’s hurting golf. They are making them longer and longer, and the costs keep going up and up and they levy members and they don’t like that. So one has to build golf courses much softer and easier for members.
JACK NICKLAUS: I don’t think there’s anything new in golf course architecture. I think it’s how you apply it and what you apply to what the ground is and what there is. If you look at Augusta National and the philosophy of Bob Jones – Bob Jones took his philosophy here from basically St. Andrews and his experiences over there. Golf to him was a second shot game. Here the tee shots have always been wide. You put the ball in the proper side of the fairway where you have the best angle into the green, that would be the way you would get to where you’re going. And then you hide the pins. And Augusta National is one of the great member courses of the world. I got in trouble when I said that about Royal Melbourne, and they didn’t understand what I meant. It’s a great compliment. When you go to a course like Augusta National and Royal Melbourne, all you have to do is put the tees back, hide the pins, and you have a great tournament golf course. And that would be the way you try to do it; you don’t have to change the golf course.
Q. What would you do to fix the game in that sense, making it easier and making it a little bit less expensive?
JACK NICKLAUS: I don’t want to take up all your time in here. That would take too long. The game, I think The PGA of America on their 2.0 program is a progressive program of wanting to bring people in the game and keep people in the game, and it’s a game to try to make the game easier, make the game faster, and make the game less expensive. If we can do those kind of things, we can bring a lot more people in the game and keep them in the game.
ARNOLD PALMER: I think some of the programs that are being put to use, The First Tee program is one that can really have a lasting effect on the future of the game of golf. That will be a program that will help the game, and it will help it dramatically in the years to come. It isn’t going to be instant, but the programs that they are doing, one of the reasons I held back was the fact that it was not endowed and it’s now being endowed, and it will be endowed.
GARY PLAYER: Personally I think what has put the game of golf into a lot of trouble is that the golf ball is going so far, and you’re finding golf pros going to play at different golf clubs, and they are hitting a driver and a 6 iron to a par 5; whereas Jack, I know at Sun City in South Africa, you used to hit a 1 iron and we were in awe. And now they hit a 6 iron, and the courses are thinking, well, the courses are obsolete. So they are lengthening their golf courses unnecessarily.
Q: Do you think there are three players on the tour now that you would consider to be the Big Three?
ARNOLD PALMER: I think Gary and Jack and myself, we did a lot of golf television or television golf, and that’s how the Big Three kind of got that name. 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.
JACK NICKLAUS:There’s a lot more players today, and right now I think all of us probably agree that Tiger is still the dominant force in the game; even though he’s struggled up until a couple of weeks ago, but there are a lot of other players that are awfully good. You pick Rory and Keegan and you go right on down the list, and Phil and you’ve got a lot of very, very good players today.
GARY PLAYER: You definitely have two of the Big Three today, and that’s Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The third one, I don’t know who that would be. And I think time will sort that out. But Jack, Arnold and myself, we won over 350 golf tournaments in our lives, and we won 56 major championships, counting regular and Senior Tour. So it was done over a certain amount of time. So I think to be fair to these golfers, you’ve got to give them more time to sort out who will be the eventual Big Three.
Q: At the tournament level, do you believe today’s technology makes it harder for a truly exceptional player to differentiate himself from a merely great player?
JACK NICKLAUS: Not really. I think the exceptional player always separates himself. I think for the last 10, 12, 15 years, Tiger has separated himself pretty well with the same equipment. No matter how good the equipment is, you’ve still got to get it in the hole. And the guy that gets it in the hole a little bit better usually ends up winning the golf tournament. That’s basically what it is.
GARY PLAYER: And you can talk about all of the equipment and you hear so much about long hitting, but there are lots of long hitters that are not winning golf tournaments. And I can tell you one thing, the reason that Tiger Woods has been the best player in the world for X amount of years, because he’s the best putter.