Mark Herrmann Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since 2002.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Rickie Fowler, the golfer scheduled to hit last in the opening round of the Masters, was at the first tee six hours and 19 minutes early. He was one of a few current golfers who showed up to watch Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus ceremonially get the tournament started. The gesture was touching, impressive and, most of all, deserved.

The Big Three still rate a tip of every golf cap. They made the Masters in particular and the sport in general more popular than anyone could have imagined when they entered it. Even though they can't hit it all that far -- Arnold's dislocated shoulder allowed him only about 100 yards -- they are still big. Part of being big is the humility to get out there and risk looking silly.

In fact, when Palmer was asked what was going through his mind when he stood up to the ball at 7:40 a.m. Thursday morning, he said, "Don't fan it." To which Nicklaus said, "I don't think he's kidding. He said exactly the same thing to me."

See alsoMasters final scorecard

The Big Three -- a title they adopted collectively when they appeared together in a 1960s TV series that promoted the game -- left hundreds at the tee, including Fowler (tee time: 1:59 p.m.), defending champion Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, then engaged in a 30-minute news conference. And they really were engaged, telling stories and making quips that reminded everybody how much they love the game -- and why so many other people do, too.

Nicklaus laughed out loud when the moderator, Augusta National member Rob Johnston, said that it was 60 years ago that Palmer first drove down Magnolia Lane "in a little two-door pink coral Ford." Nicklaus suggested the color probably matched Palmer's shirt.

The Bear didn't react at first when Player spoke of having stayed at the Nicklaus home during their heyday, and said, "food was lousy." Nicklaus interrupted by saying, "I'll tell Barbara that."

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Undaunted and with due respect to Mrs. Nicklaus (who also was there Thursday morning), Player went on to tell how he was staying with Jack when the two were tied heading into the final round of the PGA Championship. "Now Barbara is giving us breakfast and I'm thinking, `Hell, I'm a bit worried about this. We're tied.' So when she put the eggs on the table and went into the kitchen, I swapped them around," Player said, pantomiming a switch of his plate for Jack's. "But it didn't help because he beat me anyway."

Player also jabbed at Palmer for being cheap and The King counterpunched: "You wouldn't give the ducks a drink if you owned Lake Okeechobee."

The three men always have been and still are intense rivals. Just not bitter rivals. They understood the game and the business. Their relationship on and off the course helped both.

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"We always wanted to beat the hell out of each other, we made that very clear," Player said. "But when we did lose, we said, `Well done and congratulations. Maybe we'll get you next week.'"

They are genuine. Phonies don't get to stand at the top of anything for 50 or 60 years. Nicklaus was honest when he said, "Nine holes on the Par-3 yesterday darn near killed me" and when he spoke of his excitement at getting his first Augusta hole-in-one Wednesday.

So they merit big thanks. Fowler, Watson and Bradley were there to express that, on behalf of current tour pros and golf fans. "As a competitor that's played in it a lot of times, I appreciated it very much indeed," said Player, who remembered getting out there to watch Jock Hutchinson open the Masters.

Nicklaus admitted he wasn't one to wake up extra early during his competitive days, and said of the contemporary golfers, "The important thing for them today is to play well. That should be their focus, not us. But I think it's a nice gesture on their part."

It was hard earned and well deserved for the three guys who helped make golf so big.