AUGUSTA, Ga. — No matter how many major championships Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy ultimately will win — and hats off to their budding legacies — they never will be as big as the Big Three. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player changed the shape of golf, and essentially created the sport that the young stars are playing today.
Golf was mostly a boutique event, a niche attraction, before Palmer made it a mainstream television staple in the 1950s and Nicklaus and Player raised the bar by traveling the world with him and eventually surpassing him. There never will be any entity like them, nor does there need to be.
All of which made their appearance together on the first tee at the Masters on Thursday morning so touching and poignant. There is no telling how many more times we will get to see them together. As it is, Palmer made his way to the ceremonial first shots by golf cart, offering a smile and a thumbs-up. But at 86, he was not able to take a swing. He just watched. As Masters chairman Billy Payne said in introducing him, Palmer doesn’t need to hit the ball anymore. Just being here and being Arnold Palmer is enough.
“I think everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee. I think Arnold was happy to be on the tee. I think he would have preferred to hit a golf ball,” Nicklaus, 76, said, adding that the two of them talked about it early in the morning and decided it would be best if he was a ceremonial observer to the ceremonial start. “Arnold’s balance is not good and that’s what they were worried about.
“I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine,” Nicklaus said.
Player, 80, said, “It was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass. But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in that respect.”
It was sad because it is not the same as it was even a couple years ago, but it was joyful because the Masters is what it has become mostly because of those three guys.
“Those three are our giants and have been for a long, long time, all around the world. But they’re indelibly etched in this place,” said Ben Crenshaw, who retired from playing the Masters last year but was on the tee Thursday, in his green jacket, just to watch.
Rickie Fowler, who often is considered a candidate to join Spieth, Day and McIlroy in constituting a modern Big Four, was there, too. So was Bryson DeChambeau, the precocious amateur who will turn pro Monday after competing here as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
The fun part is that Fowler feels comfortable enough with Nicklaus, the long hitter of his day, to ask if his tee shot made it to the bottom of the hill on No. 1.
“I said, ‘Almost,’ ” Nicklaus said later. The point is, these icons do not peer from their heights and look down on the current golfers. The legends love watching the modern game. They root for it. Nicklaus mentioned that Justin Thomas was struggling last week and asked if he could talk it over. So the young golfer and Golden Bear sat for two hours, watched NCAA basketball and talked shop.
“I get a kick out of that, the kids want to do that,” Nicklaus said.
Player said he is rooting for McIlroy to complete the career Grand Slam this week. “It would give golf a shot in the arm,” he said, adding that recreational golf “is unhealthy — rounds are going down, golf courses are closing up.”
What they are too polite to say is that, in their heyday, they (especially Palmer) inspired people to watch golf and to play it. Palmer’s blue-collar roots made it a game for the masses. The Big Three didn’t just show up and play. They spread the word, and untold goodwill.
Spieth, Day and McIlroy often are called the New Big Three because they are exceptional talents coming into prominence at the same time, and are all terrific young men. But they are not trailblazers or golf evangelizers.
There was, is and always will be one Big Three. Their friendly competition is as durable as their legacies. Nicklaus admitted that Player outdrove him Thursday, but was quick to add, “He brought out a yellow ball today that was marked a little differently. I think it probably said, ‘ILLEGAL.’ ”
Player replied, “Jack, I wouldn’t be too concerned about me outdriving you because you did it to me for 50 damn years.”
The bottom line is this, as Player put it: “We’ve tried to promote the game. We traveled around the world without big appearance money because we loved the game, we love people. And I think we can go to our graves knowing that we contributed to society, plus golf.”
Let’s not rush that talk about The Great Beyond. These guys are still very much here, and still really big.