The Big Three have played on many golf stages together, but Thursday morning will be the first time Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player officially open the Masters as Honorary Starters.
Tournament officials asked Player last summer to join Jack and Arnie for the Tournament tradition that began in 1963. And the man known as the Black Knight accepted immediately.
It is a formidable grouping of golfers who won 13 Masters between them – and who so dominated the Tournament for a time that one of them won it every year from 1960 to 1966. It also conjures up wonderful remembrances of the diminutive South African who has long been revered for his stellar play as well as his sterling personality and the enthusiastic way he has served as golf’s international ambassador ever since he turned pro in 1953.
Not surprisingly, the Hall of Fame golfer could not be more pleased.
“To be teeing off on Thursday morning is a great honor for me,” Player said.
And to be doing so with Jack and Arnie is going to be very special, he added, pointing out that the three of them won more than 350 tournaments around the world as they also became very good friends.
“We were so competitive [with each other],” Player said. “We wanted to beat each other so badly, and we did beat each other on a lot of occasions. But the nice thing about it is that when we did lose, we looked each other in the eyes and said, ‘Well done, but I’ll get you net week.’
“That was our history of being together. When they beat me, I said, ‘Well played. You played like a champion.’ And when I beat them, they said the same thing to me. That’s how good friends are supposed to be.”
Now 76 years old, Player came to Augusta for his first Masters in 1957 and played in 52 of them before he stopped competing after the 2010 Tournament, giving him more Augusta appearances than anyone in history. He won the Masters three times, in 1961, 1974 and 1978, and he often describes his third and final victory as his best one, largely because he shot 64 on Sunday that year to prevail by a stroke. But he is understandably proud of the fact that he was the Tournament’s first international champion. In addition, Player was runner-up two times and finished in the top 10 on 15 occasions. All told, he played 164 competitive rounds at Augusta National.
That record, and that close relationship with Palmer, who became an Honorary Starter in 2007, and Nicklaus, who joined the King on the first tee three years later, made pairing the three men together in that role this year a no-brainer.
And the move delights Player’s compatriots from South Africa who are competing in this year’s Masters.
“Gary’s been a huge inspiration to me as well as my mentor,” 2009 Masters champion Trevor Immelman said. “I remember when I played in my first Masters in 1999, he played a practice round with me and showed me around the course. He’s been great to me and great to golf. He not only paved the way for us South Africans to come to the Masters and also the States to compete, but all international players. Gary is the one who got it all started, and I think it is very exciting for him to be honored by the Tournament this way.”
The 2011 Masters winner, Charl Schwartzel, who wears black on Sunday to honor the Black Knight, agreed.
“I think it is a really amazing honor, and it is going to be an unbelievable day for him Thursday,” Schwartzel said.
It is certainly going to be one more great memory for Player, who has so many of them when it comes to Augusta. Memories of getting to know Club and Tournament Founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts. Of meeting dignitaries like President Dwight Eisenhower on the grounds. Of competing against the greatest players in golf. Of his three wins and multiple near misses. Of dropping to his knee as he stepped onto the 18th green of Augusta for the last time as a competitor in 2010, paying tribute to the course and Tournament, the Club and the patrons who cheered wildly as he walked off that stage.
Tomorrow, he’ll be walking onto another stage. It should be a great start to a great week.