It is a marker of a golf fan’s age: which Honorary Starters at the Masters come first to mind. Generations recall watching the threesome of Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, with their wide-brimmed hats and signature waggles and swings, hit the opening tee shots each year.
Millennials are more likely to picture a different trio, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. Golf’s original Big Three – rivals, friends and winners of a combined 13 Green Jackets – they have christened every Masters since 2012.
And they will be together again this week, gracing the first tee at Augusta National at 8:05 a.m. Thursday, although Palmer, 86, has said he will no longer hit a drive. In announcing the news last month, the man affectionately known as the King said that although he was disappointed not to be taking a ceremonial swing, “time moves on.”
“Nobody goes on forever,” Player said. “But the fact that he’s still on the first tee is wonderful, and I’m going to dedicate my shot to Arnold Palmer and give him a big hug.”
Nicklaus shared that sentiment. “We’ll miss Arnold as far as hitting the golf ball,” he said, adding, “Gary and I will try to do the best we can without him.”
The Golden Bear, who is 76, predicted that the 80-year-old Player would try, as always, to outdrive him. “I think he was successful last year,” Nicklaus, who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his record sixth Masters title, said with a smile. “I think I hit one in the neck and he hit one out there by me. At least that's what I was told, at least by Gary.”
Of all the Masters traditions, none embodies the Tournament’s sense of history quite like the Honorary Starters. Every year, patrons arrive early to stake out spots around the No. 1 tee and players excuse themselves from breakfast to watch from the Clubhouse veranda as Masters legends strike their opening drives in the morning chill.
The custom began in 1963, when Scotsmen Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchison were given the honor. Although neither player had won the Masters, each had captured the PGA Seniors’ Championship – Hutchison in 1937 and McLeod in ’38 – during the two-year span it was held at Augusta National. Hutchison continued in the honorary role until 1973, McLeod until 1976.
After a four-year hiatus, Nelson and Sarazen, unmistakable in his plus fours, renewed the tradition. Ken Venturi, the U.S. Open champion and former amateur great, stepped in for an ailing Nelson for one year, in 1983. Years later, Venturi told the Augusta Chronicle that he was so nervous before hitting his drive, he regretted accepting the role. “All I could tell myself was, ‘Don’t whiff it,’” he said. As it turned out, he made solid contact, carrying the fairway bunker on No 1.
In 1984, Nelson returned and Snead joined the group, beginning a 15-year stretch in which Slammin’ Sam, Byron and the Squire performed the honors. After hitting their drives, they would traditionally play nine holes. Legions of golf fans around the world grew accustomed to watching these icons of the game commence the Tournament year after year with their inimitable swings, slowed and abbreviated by age but still a sight to behold.
Sarazen carried on his part through 1999, the year he died. Nelson stepped down two years later, at age 89 in 2001, when he was heard to say, “Come on, little white ball, just one more time.” Snead struck the opening drive by himself in 2002, and he passed away a month later.
After a five-year hiatus, the tradition of Honorary Starters was passed on to the next generation of Masters legends. Palmer assumed the role in 2007, performing it on his own until Nicklaus joined him three years later. Player, trim as always and dressed in his monotone black or white, filled out the beloved grouping in 2012.