AUGUSTA, Ga. - One of the great appeals of the Masters is that past and present blend so well. Today, for instance, a few hours before 14-year-old Tianlang Guan was to tee off as the event's youngest-ever competitor, the Big Three showed what a draw golfers can be in their 70s and 80s.
Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus -- in that order -- were introduced by Masters chairman Billy Payne to loud ovations from a big crowd, opening the 77th Masters as honorary starters. The sentiments around that first tee weren't just ceremonial, though. They were real.
"This is a special place," said Nicklaus, 73. "The people who come here love the game of golf. That's why they come. They love anything from the history of the game to the newcomers to the game. They see it here at Augusta. It's pretty special."
Palmer got it going by ripping his shot solidly. "Right down the middle," the 83-year-old said. "My best drive of the year."
"I haven't played much at all, just a few times here and there," said Palmer, who acknowledged that he still likes going out and hitting balls on a range near his home in Florida, and that he does that more often than he gets out on the course. He appreciates the history of the sport, aside from being a major part of it. Palmer recognizes the significance of appearing with the other two men who essentially ushered in the modern era of golf and popularized it as a mainstream sport.
"We've been doing it together all our lives, so it's a great thing," he said of the role they played Thursday morning.
He also knows that this is a historic year at Augusta, what with Darla Moore and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice having been admitted as the first women members. "I think it's great the ladies are here. I know them and they're very nice people and I think they'll add to the club," Palmer said.
Nicklaus doesn't play much golf any more either, but he did bring a group to Augusta recently. Unfortunately for them, it rained so they couldn't use golf carts. Nicklaus walked 18 for the first time in a couple of years, he said, and did so in a pair of new shoes. "My feet hurt when I was done, but no blisters," he said.
The six-time champion was diplomatic when he was asked who might win this Masters. He first mentioned Tiger Woods, then spoke of Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Dustin Johnson. "Don't overlook Nicolas Colsaerts either," he said of the long-hitter from Belgium who is making his Masters debut. Nicklaus jokingly asked if he had missed anybody.
Most pertinent, he didn't miss the ball with his swing. He said the three honorary starters all warmed up, then had to wait nine minutes to hit their well-documented shots. "You get all stiff. We can't wait nine minutes after we hit a [practice] ball," Nicklaus said. "Arnold made good solid contact, he was absolutely delighted. Gary, I don't know how he hit his. I pulled mine a little bit. They'll chase them and bring them back."
When he was asked if he was nervous, Nicklaus said, "The only nerve is to make sure you make contact with the golf ball, it makes diddly-darn where it goes."
He was going home soon after his appearance on the first tee. He is scheduled to receive an award from the Florida State Senate on Friday; will attend the spring football game Saturday at Florida State, where his grandson Nick O'Leary plays and will go fishing on Sunday, and watch the Masters by satellite hookup on his boat.