‘Now on the first tee . . . Arnie and Jack’

Darkness will have retreated, though a floor of morning dew likely still will linger April 8, when waves of people file through the gates off of Washington and Berckmans roads. They will, for the most part, be veterans of this pilgrimage, experienced in a sporting ritual that is as natural as air, so onto the grounds of Augusta National they will arrive with a plan for the folding seat.

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Arnold Palmer (right) laughs with Jack Nicklaus while adjusting Nicklaus' second green jacket at the 1965 Masters Tournament.

At the start of Amen Corner, perhaps? Or down at the sharp bend left in the fairway at Azalea, the immaculate par-5 13th? Directly behind the green at the par-4 seventh is unheralded, but brilliant, and never are you left disappointed where the sixth and 16th holes converge.

So many vantage points at a sports theater unlike any other, only on this day, the opening round to the 73rd Masters, the start-of-the-morning walk will require a detour. Call it a sense of duty, but the pull toward the first tee will be overwhelming, and so will there be a race to secure views of a precious timelessness.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Together. On the first tee. At the Masters.

In a world in which so much is so wrong, nothing will feel so right as this moment.

• • •

Palmer on his Masters farewell in 2004:

  • “Augusta and this golf tournament have been about as big a part of my life as anything other than my family. . .”

• • •

Nicklaus consenting to join Palmer for the ceremonial opening shots of the Masters was joyous news to those who view this tournament as the eternal connection to the game’s traditions.

But in that same vein, what will arrive with the 2010 Masters will be a haunting reminder that arguably the most remarkable era in American sports history officially has closed. For the first time since 1954, the Masters will be played without a competitor named Arnold Palmer, Gary Player or Jack Nicklaus.

Combined, they competed in 147 Masters, completed 477 rounds and earned 13 green jackets. From Palmer’s debut in 1955 (Player first appeared in ’57, Nicklaus in ’59) to Player’s farewell in 2009 (Palmer exited in ’04, Nicklaus a year later), these men for 55 years individually and together forged an indelible relationship with Augusta National and the Masters, their passion and respect for the game and the tournament setting a standard for future generations.

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Sam Snead (left), Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson served as honorary starters together at the Masters beginning in 1984.

Imagine, 1954.

Eisenhower was in the second year of his first term as president, gas was 22 cents per gallon, Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe, and Marlon Brando and “On the Waterfront” were winning Oscars.

It was a memorable Masters that year, with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan forcing the proceedings into an extra day. Snead won the 18-hole playoff, 70-71, the last of his seven majors. But if there was a sense of melancholy that spring over the suspicion that the beloved Hogan had missed out on his last great chance to win the Masters, it wouldn’t last long.

The era of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus was about to begin, and the Masters’ stature would never be the same.

“They created it,” James Dodson said. “Snead, Hogan, (Byron) Nelson birthed it, but Arnold, Jack and Gary grew it.”

Author of seven books, including comprehensive looks at Palmer (“A Golfer’s Life”) and Hogan (“An American Life”), Dodson is in a long line of golf people who consider the Masters the game’s most important tournament, for what it represents.

“The Masters, to me, is the key to the game’s future,” Dodson said. “(Golf) is our most intimate game. It’s you and history, you and the fans. Those qualities haven’t changed, so what has changed?”

Today’s players, he suggests.

“They’re colorless,” Dodson said. “We have maybe the greatest collection of players, top to bottom, in our history, but they don’t have that kinship with the fans.”

Not like Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, who walked not in the middle of fairway, but close to gallery ropes. Never did they hide behind sunglasses or blend in with a laughable entourage of swing coaches, short-game gurus, sports psychologists, managers, agents and personal trainers. They took the time to notice their surroundings and to appreciate, and perhaps that is why, even long after their prime competitive days were over, they remained the popular draws at Augusta National.

“I remember in 1998 (when Palmer was 68, Nicklaus 58), me and Billy Andrade played a practice round with them on Wednesday,” Brad Faxon said. “I couldn’t believe the crowd watching them and how much fun they had with the people, how much they wanted to showcase themselves for the people.”

• • •

Nicklaus at his farewell in 2005:

  • “This is not a celebrity walk-around; this is a golf tournament. It’s a treasure for me, and I’ll miss that greatly.”

• • •

Even as the years pushed onward and life offered its inevitable challenges (Palmer lost his wife, Winnie, and had a bout with prostate cancer; Nicklaus had hip replacement surgery and mourned the death of a grandson; Player had a rib injury and constantly battled an exhaustive travel schedule), they attracted the most patrons and the greatest attention. They remained singularly and collectively a phenomenon.

Why?

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For the first time since 1954, the Masters will be played without Gary Player (left), Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer in the starting field.

“They provided an organic linkage to the origins of the tournament and the club,” Martin Davis said. “They were a continual to (Bobby) Jones, (Clifford) Roberts, (Byron) Nelson, (Gene) Sarazen.”

As editor and publisher of The American Golfer, Davis has produced books on Jones, Hogan, Nelson and Nicklaus, and he finds a common denominator with all of these legends.

Their unbreakable ties to the Masters.

“It’s almost a chicken-or-egg thing,” Davis said. “Did they make the tournament, or did the tournament make them? (Regardless), the point is, these great players rose to the occasion at the Masters.”

None quite like Palmer, Player and Nicklaus.

In a nine-year span (1958-66), they won eight green jackets and four times finished 1-2, most notably in 1965 when Nicklaus won, and Player and Palmer tied for second.

“It was remarkable how it all came together,” Davis said. “The first Masters (TV) broadcast (1956) had come as Arnold arrived, then he started winning it what seemed to be every year. Then there was Gary, and then Jack. Every year, one of them was winning. It was exciting.”

These days, Dodson doesn’t get the same sensation.

“From 1960 to ’70, the game exploded,” he said. “From 1995 to 2005, it declined. Not because Tiger (Woods) wasn’t the most exciting player, because he is. But with Arnold and Gary and Jack, the game had a soul; there’s no soul in the game today.

“I guess the game always does better with a triumvirate.”

• • •

Player, at his final farewell in 2009:

  • “The Masters has meant an awful lot to me, and I’ve tried to be an ambassador for this great tournament.”

• • •

Determined to embrace tradition, Masters officials in 1963 introduced the concept of the honorary starter. Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchinson shared the duties through 1973; McLeod continued by himself through ’76; then four springs went by without the ritual until Nelson and Sarazen took over. It went to the next level in 1984 when Snead joined in, and for 16 Aprils, the sight of Sarazen-Nelson-Snead approaching the first tee was a moving one.

Dodson doesn’t know if Hogan, whose last Masters was in 1967, ever was asked but isn’t surprised that he never was part of the honorary starter tradition. “By the time he was ready to do something like that, Ben just didn’t want to travel,” Dodson said. “He wanted to remain quiet. He had done all he could do.”

Sarazen in 1999, Nelson two years later and Snead in 2002 eventually hit their final Augusta tee shots, and for another four springs the role of honorary starter was empty. Finally, after years of suggestions and hints, Palmer accepted the invitation.

“He was emotional (in 2007),” Dodson said.

It was a decent drive, considering Palmer was 77 years old, “but he kept shaking his head, saying, ‘I should do better.’ It was a sacred mission for him – and it will be for Jack, too.”

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