'The Big Three' together again at Greats of Golf

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

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BLAINE, Minn. –– The autograph line formed shortly after 6 a.m. on Aug. 2, and spilled outside the exhibition hall and around several corners. Overflow parking? It overflowed. More than 25-deep surrounded the first tee at TPC Twin Cities to see "The Big Three." There were more people craning their neck and standing on their tiptoes than at the Masters on Thursday morning and even better, this time they got to see more than just an opening tee shot.

Hollis Cavner, director of the 3M Championship, seems to add a new wrinkle every year to this Champions Tour staple. Free admission. The Greats of Golf. A team of female greats -- Pat Bradley, Nancy Lopez and Annika Sorenstam -- last year. But nothing quite matched the coup of reuniting Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. It was their first time playing together in the Land of 10,000 Lakes since the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine National when Tony Jacklin won in a rout.

"I don’t remember anything about it," Nicklaus said. "That is, I don’t want to remember anything about it."

Memories, these greats have a few and they didn't mind recycling some favorites. Palmer is a 3M regular, and at 84 years old, his role was limited to team captain of the LPGA greats, sinking a 10-foot birdie putt at the sixth hole to roars of approval.

"C'mon, hitch your britches, let's go," Fuzzy Zoeller implored him as Palmer lined up one putt.

Nicklaus and Player paired with Lee Trevino and the sign on the standard bearer said it all: "Team Greatest Ever."

Their captain? “Are you serious?” Cavner said. “Who could captain that squad? Nobody!”

Indeed, the first tee starter claimed he was out of breath from reciting Nicklaus' accomplishments from his glory days.

In a year where there is no World Golf Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, the 3M Championship and the Greats of Golf could produce one heckuva Hall of Famer roll call (14 in total). Nostalgia is alive and well when baby boomers are asking their childhood heroes for selfies, but so is the competitive spirit of these all-time greats.

"Why do you think we’re here? You think we enjoy sitting at home and watching television? Of course we don’t," Nicklaus said. "We’ve been in the public all our lives. Arnold’s not even playing right now and he’s here because he likes being part of the game of golf. The game of golf has been wonderful to all of us. Do we want to give up what we’ve done all our lives? We’ll have great fun today even though we hit probably 100 yards short of where we used to hit it."

On the fifth tee, Nicklaus asked how far to clear a cluster of fairway bunkers. Told it was 280 yards, he strapped a head cover back on his driver.

"280," Trevino said. "I remember when that was your 3-wood."

"Youth is a long time ago," Nicklaus lamented.

But for one afternoon, time seemed to stand still. While Hale Irwin, 69, was turning back the clocks in shooting a 66 in the tournament proper, David Graham, Fuzzy Zoeller and Andy North took turns rolling in birdie putts. They teamed in the scramble format for a score of 15-under through 17 holes when inclement weather halted play.

Beforehand, Nicklaus belted drives, Lopez chipped in, Trevino and Johnny Miller putted lights out and Dave Stockton, well no one was surprised that he seemed to never miss with the short stick.

"I've got Dave putting for me," said Miller, who partnered with Stockton and Al Geiberger. "What's not to like?"

Nicklaus, Player and Trevino were thanked a thousand times for being there. Some of the pros showed their appreciation too, circling back to follow The Greats after their round. "This is watching history," Andy Bean said.

The weight some of them have gained has settled in the waist, but it didn't stop 84-year-old Don January from contributing a few putts and climbing the hill behind the ninth green. "They used to call me Slim or Bones," he said, "Now just don't call me late for dinner."

Trevino, who began using a yellow Bridgestone golf ball recently because he can see it better in the air, complained that his vision has worsened. As always, he had a vivid story to describe this: "I'm blind as a bat," he said. "I go to the bathroom and I wet my shoes."

When a spectator blurted out that Trevino's chatter was endless, Player cracked, "Can you imagine being married to him?"

"C'mon, Lee, quit talking," Nicklaus said. "We're already two holes behind."

Without missing a beat, Trevino answered, "You always played two holes behind, Jack." The crowd roared. Nicklaus grinned wide. "I thought you'd like that," he said.

Nicklaus took his turn wielding the needle at Trevino a hole later after the loquacious Trevino said he was going to take a deep breath. "Then you're going to start talking again, aren't you?"

It was that type of day, a low-key affair where Annika gave Arnold a mulligan, Lee gave Jack a putting lesson, and the fans couldn't get enough of the Greats of Golf. In other words, it was like old times.

So how is Cavner possibly going to top this year's illustrious field and record crowds? He paused for a moment to hatch a plan. "I don't know," he said, "We might have to dig up Elvis."

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