They appeared in the doorway of the Augusta National Clubhouse at just after 7:30 a.m., three aging champions in green jackets. Jack Nicklaus, was first, flanked to the right by Masters chairman Billy Payne, then came Gary Player, dressed in his trademark black.
A few steps behind, dressed in a blue shirt and crisp pants, came Arnold Palmer, age 85, peering toward a group of Augusta members and their wives.
“All my girls,” Palmer said, holding his hands up as his lips curled into a mischievous smile.
It was Thursday morning, and the Masters was set to begin, which meant it was time for Nicklaus, 75, Player, 79, and Palmer to head to the first tee and serve as honorary starters. It’s an annual tradition at Augusta National, and on this morning, in the moments before their ceremonial tee shots, Palmer turned to Nicklaus, revealing his goal.
“Don’t fan it,” Palmer said.
Fifty years ago, on this same course, these three men were tied after 36 holes at the 1965 Masters. Nicklaus, then 25, would capture his second green jacket, shooting a then course-record 17-under. A half-century later, Palmer was determined to join his two old friends back on the first tee, even after a nasty fall in December left him with a dislocated shoulder.
Palmer’s tee shot was not a thing of beauty — he pulled it over the gallery and down the left side of the fairway — but for a man just five months shy of his 86th birthday, it wasn’t too bad. The gallery exulted in a moment of applause anyway.
“If this goes out of sight,” Palmer had said, moments before his tee shot, “don’t be surprised.”
“Still the King,” Payne said to the crowd assembled on the first tee. “Always the leader of his army.”
This was Thursday morning at the Masters, where three old friends come together to start a tournament. They hit some tee shots, bask in the cheers, share a few laughs and grapple with the shared experience of aging. In sporting terms, it’s a rare moment. The World Series does not begin with three Hall of Fame sluggers taking ceremonial hacks. Likewise for Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson at the NBA Finals. But here at the Masters, you can still watch three of golf’s greatest legends step to the first tee — then argue over old stories like lifelong friends at the breakfast table.
“It’s been unique, really,” said Player, who won three green jackets while appearing in a record 52 Masters . “Never in history of golf have there been three people that have basically lived with each other all years and have such respect and love for each other.”
They are tied together by history, by the 16 Masters they won. And when they get together, the stories usually flow out. On Thursday morning, one of the stories was told by Player, and it involved Palmer and his unusually strong hands. (Arnold definitely had the strongest hands I’ve ever seen on a golfer in my life,” Player said.) Many years ago, Player said, Palmer visited him in his native South Africa. They visited a gold-mining operation, and Player said they found themselves in a room with “a billion dollars worth of gold.” An official at the gold mine appeared in the room, and then placed a heavy gold bar on the table.
“Anybody that can pick this up can have it,” Player recalled the man saying.
Palmer leaned in toward Player, asking if he could give it a shot, and Player spoke up to the man at the mine.
“I’ve got a friend here from America, can he try?” Player asked. “He goes, ‘Sure.’ And Arnold goes and picks it up, and these guys’ eyes went this big.”
The man, Player explained, was obviously terrified that Palmer would want to keep the gold bar.
“He says, ”I only work here’,” Player recalled. “Arnold says: ‘You did work here.’”
The stories and the barbs continued. One day earlier, Nicklaus had participated in the Par-3 tournament. He had recorded a hole-in-one, but even just nine holes, he said, had left him wiped out. When he looks at Player, 79, and Palmer, 85, two men older than him, he can see himself aging, too.
“I’m trying to figure out what I’m doing at 75,” Nicklaus said. “Nine holes on the Par 3 yesterday darn near killed me.”
“He’s not going to get to 85,” Player quipped, as laughter filled the room.
Player was joking, of course. But there’s no telling how many more chances Nicklaus, Palmer and Player will have to share the Masters together. Sixty years ago, in April of 1955, Palmer played in his first Masters and tied for 10th — with Byron Nelson. That week, Palmer arrived to the tournament in a two-door, pink coral Ford. On Thursday, he passed through the clubhouse once more, sharing a golf tournament with two friends.
“Words can’t express (this),” Player said. “You can have love for a woman, and you can have love for a friend and I think the greatest word that exists in any book of note is love. And I think this is what we’ve had for each other.”