Nerves still get the best of Palmer, Nicklaus

Legendary golfer Arnold Palmergestures after hitting his ceremonial tee shot during the first round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before moving forward, the Masters insists on precious steps backwards. It affords the chance to remember, to refocus, to rekindle passion.

What it doesn’t do is soften the nerves. They’re still there 56 years after he first walked to the first tee of Augusta National.

‘When I stop getting nervous, I won’t be here,” Arnold Palmer said, moments after opening the 75th Masters not with fireworks and pageantry but grace and humility.

“I’m most grateful (to be here),” Palmer said. “No tournament carries the heritage and tradition (like the Masters). It’s still fun, still exciting to see people I’ve been looking at all these years.”

Renewing his attachment to a tournament that helped forge his legend, Palmer served as honorary starter for a fifth straight year, joined at the first tee for a second time by a fellow icon, Jack Nicklaus. Together they won 10 green jackets, competed in 95 Masters, and helped usher this tournament into an era of unprecedented popularity.

Accompanied to the first tee by Billy Payne, the chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, Palmer wore a red sweater, Nicklaus a black sweater, and though a hint of frost hung in the air, warm emotions served as an adequate blanket. There was a brief introduction, the board at the first tee noted their ages – “81” for Palmer and “71” for Nicklaus – and Payne announced, “Arnold, the tee is yours.”

What followed was a fairway-splitting drive, warm applause, then Payne’s introduction of “six-time champion, Mr. Jack Nicklaus.”

Another swing from yesteryear, another fairway-splitter, another moment for the Masters archives, though what the legends seemed to appreciate the most was just the chance to have a small part of a tournament they cherish.

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Arnold Palmer watches the ceremonial first tee shot to start the first round of the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia.

“Obviously, I’m not playing very much and I’m not playing very well,” Nicklaus said with a smile.

Palmer, who ended 50 straight years of Masters play in 2004, became the honorary starter in 2007. Nicklaus, whose competitive efforts at Augusta came to a close in 2005, joined him a year ago.

They are 47 (Palmer) and 25 years (Nicklaus) removed from their last wins here, but that means not a thing to those who gathered at the first tee or beneath the famed oak tree at the rear of the clubhouse. Former Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller wore his green jacket as he watched, and among those who were present was PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.

It may have been just one swing and one moment, but still, it required a professional’s commitment. So both players arrived early and made their way to the range. “He was hitting it really well on the range,” said Palmer’s caddie, Cori Britt. “He was more fluid than usual, especially for very early in the morning.”

His tee time set for 7:40, Palmer arrived at 6:30, got to the range at 7:15, and went through the bag – “a few wedges, a few 7-irons, a couple of 7-woods, then a couple of drivers,” said Britt, 37, who is vice-president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises.

As they stood on a first tee that must feel like home, Palmer and Nicklaus gazed down a fairway that has beckoned them stretching back to seven decades. It measures 445 yards, but looks like 4,450.

“I saw all those shadows and I said, ‘I don’t know if we can hit out of our shadows,’ ” Nicklaus said.

They did, with ease, though the results depended upon your vantage point. But thanks to an embrace of the magic that unfolds at every walk through the gates, what one saw was Palmer rip a low, hard draw that traveled some 280 yards, Nicklaus a skyscraper fade that dropped to the greenest turf 300 yards out.

To question that view is to concede ignorance of what the Masters is all about.

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