Former Masters champions Jack Nicklaus (L) and Arnold Palmer fist bump as they take part in the ceremonial start of the Masters golf tournament on Thursday at the Augusta National Golf Club. (REUTERS: Mike Segar)
AUGUSTA — The ‘Big Three’ of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player showed their competitive juices still flowed after striking tee shots to launch the Masters Tournament at Augusta National on Thursday.
Elder statesman Palmer, 84, a four-times Masters champion, hit a solid blow up the middle with the first ceremonial shot, before three-times winner Player, 78, outdrove him by about 50 yards up the hill some 210 yards from the tee.
Six-times champion Nicklaus, 74, rose to the challenge by sneaking his drive just past Player’s to the delight of a cheering crowd packed around the first tee on a glorious, sunny day for the opening round of the year’s initial major.
“I think Jack outdrove me by a yard or two,” Player grudgingly acknowledged. “But it’s not bad when you think he used to outdrive me by 50.”
The three lions of the game made 147 Masters appearances between them and combined to dominate the championship by winning seven titles in a row from 1960-1966.
Nicklaus said he missed the sensation of teeing off for real at Augusta National.
“It was such a great thrill every time we teed it up to actually play for real, and I think we’d all love to wind the clock back a few years and play,” the Golden Bear said at a news conference after the trio’s hits as honorary starters.
“It’s such a great tournament, a great thrill to stand on the first tee, have the butterflies and get that first tee shot over and get going.
“Today, no butterflies.”
Player, who played in a record 52 Masters, considered their reunion a special moment and reflected on their remarkable, intertwining careers.
“It’s been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here,” said the South African winner of nine majors. “We went across the world. We’ve slept at each other’s homes and our wives have known each other, and we have had a great friendship.
“We’ve always wanted to beat each other, we’ve never hidden that. But when we did win, we congratulated the other. When we lost, we congratulated the other.”
Player, who first played the Masters in 1957, and Nicklaus, who debuted in 1959, took turns expressing how they felt about their special connection to the tournament and the club.
“It means an awful lot in our lives,” said Player. “It’s the best-organized tournament in the world. It is something special and it’s nice to be a part of it.”
Nicklaus, the all-time majors winner with 18 titles, said: “It’s been a big part of our lives…Augusta National thinks we have been a big part of the Masters Tournament. We are very proud of that.”
Waiting for a response from Palmer, whose hearing is beginning to fail him, Nicklaus prodded him, turning to the seven-time majors winner and saying, “You were here a long time before we were.”
Palmer, who is looking increasingly frail, replied: “Yes, and I hope I’m here a long time after you,” drawing hearty laughter from the press corps.
Asked how long they planned to serve as honorary starters, Palmer spoke first.
“I suppose as long as they ask me to do it,” said the man who was nicknamed “The King.”
“There’s your answer,” said Nicklaus.