The morning sun peeked through the pine trees exactly on cue, casting a soft glow on the first tee and lighting up the sign that posted the players’ names.
Arnold Palmer. Gary Player. Jack Nicklaus.
The Big Three were together again at Augusta National, walking out in that same order to a steady applause. The King, dressed in gray slacks and a short-sleeve shirt despite a slight morning chill, had the honors. He took his familiar practice swing and waggle and then found the fairway with his drive.
“Yes, sir. Yes, Sir,” said Billy Payne, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament. “Well played, Arnie.”
Next up came Player, trim as ever in his traditional black outfit. He belted a line drive that would be the longest ball of the three.
Nicklaus, wearing a bright yellow vest, followed. He stood behind his ball and eyed the distant fairway as if he were still competing in the Tournament. At address, he waggled a couple of times and then made his classic pregnant pause over the ball before drawing the club back. He, too, split the fairway with his drive.
This was the first time that golf’s so-called Big Three shared the duties of Honorary Starters. It was Player’s first time, which might have seemed long overdue, but don’t forget that he simply wouldn’t stop competing, ending his Masters career in 2009 after a record 52 starts.
“It was a great thrill, having had this wonderful relationship, great friendship with Arnold and Jack for a long, long time and having traveled extensively around the world together. We've even cried together, and we've laughed together, and we've had good times,” Player said.
Between them, they won 13 titles – Nicklaus six, Palmer four, Player three – and their legendary duels at Augusta National echo across generations. So how fitting that Phil Mickelson, wearing his own Green Jacket, stood in the back of the tee box to soak in the nostalgia.
The numbers beside their names on the first tee looked like golf scores, but actually they were their ages: 82, 76, 72.
Mickelson, a three-time champion playing his 20th Masters, had never attended the honorary starting ceremony before. His first-round tee time wasn’t until 1:53 p.m., the final grouping of the day. Still, he came for the Big Three’s 7:40 a.m. start.
“I always wanted to do this,” Mickelson said, beaming. “That was cool.”
Asked how it felt to see Mickelson among the admiring onlookers on the first tee, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player all said they were pleased. “It was a nice compliment,” Nicklaus said.
Fittingly, it was the 50th anniversary of having honorary starters begin the Masters, a tradition that dates to Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchinson in 1963.
And now it continues with the Big Three.
“It’s very appropriate,” Palmer said. “We have played golf all our lives together. And the press have made an issue of the Big Three, and we have kind of had a pretty good run here at Augusta."
He added: “I think Gary and Jack and myself, we did a lot of television golf, and that's how the Big Three kind of got that name. And of course, the record here at Augusta is part of it, too,” Palmer said. “But the fact that we were together competing against each other in the early days of television had a lot to do with the whole thing.”