Big Three offer big thrills to open 2014 Masters

Arnold Palmer (left), Jack Nicklaus (center) and Gary Player (second from right) share a laugh after starting the 78th Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Joe Montana doesn't throw a 50-yard pass to initiate Super Bowl Sunday. Julius Erving doesn't dunk a basketball as a prelude to the NBA Finals. Hank Aaron doesn't swing at a fastball before the start of the World Series.

Yet, with chilly temperatures prevailing Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus once again hit ceremonial tee shots to get the Masters golf tournament underway.

The Big Three – a holdover name from the 1960s – has done this for three years.

Despite their age (Palmer is 84, Player 78, Nicklaus 74) this gathering remains a bit of a competition. "We've always wanted to beat each other," Player conceded. "We've never hidden that."

The tale of the tape from the 7:40 a.m. festivity on the first tee: Nicklaus 228 yards, Player 227 yards, Palmer 184 yards. All three hit the fairway, although Palmer was slowed noticeably by a back problem that will require surgery.

Nicklaus hit last, and his margin of victory over Player actually was about 10 inches. Golfweek carefully measured all the drives with a Bushnell Hybrid rangefinder.

The drives would have been longer, but the balls had virtually no roll after crash-landing into an upslope.

There were other excuses, too, but conversation about the length of the drives quickly was transformed into a nostalgic session on golf history. The Masters, for example, was first played exactly 80 years ago, in 1934.

The Big Three dominated Masters tournaments past. They combined to win 13 green jackets. From 1960 to 1966, they won seven consecutive Masters.

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, exposing not only their age but also their inability to mimic the long hitters they once were.

Nicklaus said he hit his drive "pretty solid" and then mocked about his 92-mph clubhead speed.

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 Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National Golf Club. “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. The memories of past Masters champions are everywhere.

It doesn’t matter how far Palmer can or cannot drive the ball. For the record, Palmer will have minor back surgery within the next few weeks. The procedure, he said, is somewhat similar to the recent back surgery of Tiger Woods.

What really mattered at the 2014 Masters, the year's first major championship, was that three gifted older men were willing to dink three drives down the fairway for the sake of the game they love. The overflow crowd went crazy.

It seemed perfectly natural, unlike the thought of Montana throwing a wobbly pass, or Erving banging his head on the rim or Aaron swinging and missing.

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