After Arnold Palmer, 80, struck a solid shot off the first tee this morning at Augusta National, Jack Nicklaus, 70, stepped up. Once the vigorous cheering subsided, Nicklaus turned to Palmer, by now at the back edge of the teeing area and said, “How did you do that?”
Palmer said, “Keep your eye on the ball!”
Not that that would help once the ball was airborne. “I didn’t put my contacts in so I didn’t see it. I didn’t have a clue where it went.”
It was a fine shot; seemingly a nice traditional Nicklaus fade. “Arnold said, `As long as you can hear the club hit the ball, you’ve done all right,’ ” Nicklaus said. “The biggest problem is, you don’t want to hear it land.”
No problem. Both The King and The Bear hit shots well out of personal audio range. Besides, who could have heard it with the ovations those two received?
For the Masters, it was another historic moment. It was the first time that those two legends, with 10 green jackets between them, had served as honorary starters together. Palmer has been doing it for a few years, but Nicklaus finally decided to join him. He was glad he did, after 45 years of playing in the Masters and six wins. He loves all the traditions here.
“It was actually very nice. It wasn’t any different though,” Nicklaus said, comparing it to previous first-tee shots. “You’re standing up there and you’ve got a big crowd and you’ve got a nice line and you try to hit it. I felt like I hit it very solid, there just wasn’t much of it.”
This time, his caddie was his granddaughter Christie, Jack Jr.’s daughter. She and her dad worked the trip to Augusta into a trip to look at college campuses. She was there with granddad as he warmed up before his 7:40 tee time.
“I’ve never been up this early at Augusta,” Nicklaus said. So he never did see Gene Sarazen or other legends open the tournament the way he and Palmer did today. Nicklaus recalled being a young player at Augusta and learning that Jock Hutchinson and Fred McLeod were the honorary starters.
“I didn’t know who they were and I’m sure the young players now don’t know who Arnold and I are,” he said.
Not likely. The names Palmer and Nicklaus are written all across golf. They established golf as a major presence on the American sports landscape with their rivalries. Nicklaus said today, though, what he has said many times: the two men actually were friends and did spend much time together in their primes. They flew together to exhibitions in Palmer’s jet.
Masters Chairman Billy Payne warmly introduced both men. He called Palmer “a great champion and even greater person.” In introducing Nicklaus, he said the Masters is “honored and indeed blessed” to have him as an honorary starter. “Jack dominated the world of golf and the Masters tournament like no one before or since,” Payne said.
Yesterday, Payne had made news by praising then rebuking Tiger Woods for the sex scandal that has dominated all talk in the golf world for the past five months. Palmer, when he was asked about Payne’s statement, said, “I have no comment, except I agree.”
Nicklaus said, “I haven’t really read the statement. I asked for a transcript.” He said he couldn’t comment.
This morning was his moment, and that of his longtime rival/friend. “It’s a nice tradition,” Nicklaus said. “I would like to do it again.”
Palmer said of the tournament he first entered in 1955: “Well, I look forward to it. I think about it before I get here. I get nervous, even now, and I’m not playing any more.”