Big Three salute the game with ceremonial drives

Gary Player (left), Arnold Palmer (middle) and Jack Nicklaus

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They dominated major championships past. Once they were heroes. Now they are called honorary starters.

The job description is simple enough: Tee up one ball, make one swing, wave to the crowd, shake a bunch of hands, get out of the way so the Masters can start for real.

It couldn’t be easy. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus won 13 Masters among them, and now they are honorary starters, exposing not only their age but also their inability to mimic the long hitters they once were.

For the record, Palmer is 83, Player 77, Nicklaus 73.

Also for the record, Nicklaus hit the longest drive at 237 yards. Player was close behind at 235, while Palmer split the fairway and was easily the straightest of the three while driving the ball 218 yards.

It really wasn’t fair, asking three all-time greats to gather on the 1st tee at 7:50 a.m. and hit drives into an upslope with no roll. The Masters does not label this as a long-drive contest, but the three golfers admitted there would be bragging rights.

“Of course,” Player said, “I want to hit the longest drive. I want to tell my kids and my grandkids that I outdrove Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.”

Well, not quite.

How strange it must be for these legendary golfers to warm up in near darkness for the opportunity to hit just one shot.

“We all hit a bucket of balls,” Nicklaus quipped. "Just before daylight.”

Hundreds of spectators gathered in conditions that were damp and overcast. To measure the drives, Golfweek used a Bushnell Tour V3 rangefinder that had been calibrated for accuracy. The narrow victory by Nicklaus was a turnabout from last year’s honorary shootout, in which Player beat Nicklaus and Palmer.

One reason golf is different – and better – than other sports is the way it recognizes and honors its legendary performers. Golfer champions may grow older on the birth certificate and shorter on the distance grid, but they are not forgotten.

“The tradition of honorary starters is a fun and celebratory way of beginning the Masters each year,” said chairman Billy Payne. “Three great champions, three great men.”

This was another way of stressing that today’s prominence is a product of yesterday’s traditions and principles. The memories of Masters founder Bobby Jones are everywhere at Augusta National Golf Club. The memories of past Masters champions are everywhere.

It doesn’t matter how far Palmer can or cannot drive the ball. Nothing matters except the realization that three gifted older men were willing to dink three drives down the fairway for the sake of the game they love.

Good on them.

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