Jack Nicklaus, the second of the legends to hit, bent down to put his tee in the ground and said, “Now if I can get back up…”
Don’t let him kid you. Nicklaus was ready and primed to be an honorary starter at the Masters, along with his friend and half-century rival Arnold Palmer. Each man wanted to hit a good shot, which they did. And you get the impression that Nicklaus, 71 and 10 years Palmer’s junior, wanted to hit it better and longer. He did.
“I wasn’t nervous. I just couldn’t see it,” he said later. But he didn’t just take a whack at the ball, pick up his tee and head off with a nice little smile and wave. Nicklaus made sure to take a good, serious look at the flight of his ball as it headed down the fairway. Maybe as a reminder to himself and everyone else not to take it too seriously, he waved with both hands, exhorting the ball to go farther.
Bottom line, the Masters was off to a good start at 7:40 a.m.
The honorary starter tradition is one of the many that makes the Masters the Masters.
Palmer and Nicklaus walked side by side onto the first tee at 7:38, followed by Masters chairman Billy Payne, who would introduce them. No long-winded intros, either. Just classy, profound nods to two of the greatest and most popular American athletes.
First, of Palmer, he said, “Our first starter has been golf’s greatest ambassador for the last 50 years.” Palmer, smiling broadly, hit a solid shot.
Nicklaus was up next and Payne introduced him as, “A legend of the game who thrilled us all with his emotional victory 25 years ago.”
A few minutes afterward, both men had their green jackets on and were headed back to the clubhouse. Nicklaus was asked to reflect on the whole thing, considering that he had been reluctant to join the honorary starter ranks 10 years ago.
“Five or 10 years ago I wasn’t ready to do this,” he said “When Arnie was [first] doing it, I wanted to give him his space, let him have his day.”
Now, it’s a different story. “I enjoy it a lot, people enjoy it,” Nicklaus said. “It’s Augusta’s way of honoring its past champions, people such as Arnold and myself. And it’s really quite nice that they allow us to do that.
“You stand on the first tee and sort of say, hey I used to be here and this was fun and we enjoyed it. Arnold and I both looked at each other, we were on the practice tee this morning, and he said you know, 1955, that was the first time I hit it out here. I said I wasn’t far behind you, it was 1959. 56 and 52 years, that’s a long time. I guess it’s still kind of fun to be able to knock it off the first tee and be part of a great event,” he said.
The great event officially began soon after the two ceremonial tee shots. And Nicklaus said he was off to what 71-year-old Floridians like to do. “I’m going fishing,” he said.