AUGUSTA, Ga. – Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus.
The Big Three.
Among them, 13 Masters victories (Nicklaus 6, Palmer 4, Player 3).
On Thursday, as they kickstarted the Masters, I imagined three words for the current state of the Big Three: older, wiser, weaker.
They were labeled as honorary starters, but this had all the earmarks of a super-senior long-drive contest. This was a showdown to establish bragging rights for a year, until they return in 2013 for another one-shot exhibition off the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club.
For the record, Palmer is 82, Player 76, Nicklaus 72.
Also for the record, here were their carry distances Thursday on the first hole: Player 236 yards, Nicklaus 218 yards, Palmer 185 yards.
They were hitting into a severe hill, so carry distances and total distances were identical. There was no roll.
In case there are any questions about my credentials as a long-drive judge, I stood at the edge of the first fairway and measured the distances very carefully (from the ball back to the player) with a rangefinder.
Palmer and Player split the fairway. Nicklaus also was in the fairway, but to the left side.
How much did Player want to win this little contest? Very, very, very much.
On Tuesday, two days before the Big Three would start the Masters, Player was asked if he wanted to hit the longest tee shot of the three.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve been training very hard. I’ve just come from the gym right now, in fact. I increased my sit-ups and my weights. Absolutely. We’ve (always) been very competitive.”
Player has been using a new driver that is a big longer.
“I’ve been driving the ball 275 yards with this driver,” Player said. “You must realize there was no roll in that first fairway. Arnold and Jack would have hit the ball 30 or 40 yards farther. That’s true for me, as well.”
Honorary starters are a tradition at the Masters. When I first came here in 1971, Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod were the honorary starters. They played two holes, Nos. 1 and 2.
Over the years, some honorary starters actually played the entire front nine. Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead would have played all day if allowed to do so.
What a joy it would be to watch Palmer, Player and Nicklaus play two holes – say, 1 and 9, which run parallel to each other. In the natural amphitheater that is Augusta National, this would be high drama.
“I would love to play,” Player said.
Sure he would, because he remains a workout demon despite his age.
“Whoever thought of that idea (honorary starters) was very smart,” Player said Tuesday. “Because the people – you’ve got to entertain the people. Without the people, you don’t have this tournament. They just love it.
“And playing with Arnold and Jack, they’re just (he paused) … you know, it’s coming to an end. If you want to say our lives, our careers, it’s the sunset. To be able to replay, it’s like having a mulligan.”
The players have memories, the fans have memories, and golf is clearly the game of a lifetime. There are so many years in which to collect so many reflections.
We don’t mind seeing our golf heroes grow old, because they are doing exactly what we are doing – playing the game, loving the game, always looking forward to the next shot.
I stood still and listened to the applause. The earth seemed to be shaking. It could just as easily have been 1986, when Nicklaus roared home with a 30 on the back nine.
That was the last time a member of the Big Three would win the Masters, although golf has a way of recapturing its most glorious moments.
Long live the Big Three.