AUGUSTA — Sinatra is gone, but we still have his music. Same with Nat King Cole and Elvis. It would be nice to have them in concert again, however.
With Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, we are not sure what it will be like when they are no longer the Masters starters. We can’t insert a tape and experience them at their best.
Nonetheless, they will always be relevant at Augusta, like Hogan, Nelson and Snead. But there is that nagging fear of the emotional faucet of their life and times being turned off when the aging process eventually robs us of their presence. Maybe that is why the most passionate and sentimental of fans show up every year to see these champions — with 13 Masters titles among them — start the Masters with early morning tee shots on Thursday.
They are greybeards now. Ole timers. Over the hill, but their loyal fans remain over the top when it comes to witnessing history when these former champions ride down Magnolia Lane and head to the first tee for the ceremonial start of another Masters tournament.
Eager fans congregate between the first tee and the clubhouse. When the “Big Three,” emerge from inside and make their way to the tee, in the company of Chairman Billy Payne, there is an immediate parting of the crowd, reminding you of Moses and the story of the Red Sea. Such respect expressed the eyes of the beholders! It is not Biblical, but heartwarming and uplifting; downright spiritual if you love golf the way countless Masters fans do.
Ole timers on the scene remember the exits of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. That was sad even though Hogan never was an honorary starter. Crowds, even adoring ones, bothered Hogan, but it is doubtful that he would have been comfortable being an honorary starter.
This was the way it was Thursday, before the sun burned through the dew and dampness, before the multitudes emerged from their hangovers, eggs and bacon and third Starbucks to make their way onto the grounds and the first day of competition.
Arnold, the senior in the group, hit first. He swung fiercely as ever, finishing with his exclamation point, the loop at the top of his swing — though not as fiercely as he did in 1964, when he won his fourth and last Masters.
Player, the global champion, with more frequent flyer miles than Condoleezza Rice, looked very much like the Gary Player who became the first international player to win the Masters in 1961 — when Palmer, drive in the middle of the fairway on the last hole Sunday, only needed to hit his approach shot in the middle of the green and two putt to become the first back-to-back winner of the tournament — experienced a lapse in concentration. He hit his approach into a greenside bunker on the right side, then blasted back across the green and before you knew it, he made double bogey and lost the tournament.
Player, the beneficiary of Palmer’s lapse, looking as fit as ever in his familiar black attire, then hit his ceremonial drive down the middle of the fairway. Nicklaus, the Golden Bear with six Masters titles, was last to hit, pounding his way on a line in the direction of Player’s ball which bounded five or six yards past the South African. Like old times.
They then moved inside for a press conference of about 45 minutes. Where, other than the Masters, are former champions so revered? Where, other than Augusta, would the media want to interview past champions for the better part of an hour?
Life is made of memories, and I shall never forget a personal connection with each of the three. There was the time when I visited Player at his ranch in South Africa — in Safari khakis, riding up in a pickup truck, speaking Afrikaans with the workers on his ranch, with his dog in the back of his truck. When Player smiled, his dog seemed to smile; seeing Nicklaus getting ready to board his Gulfstream home to North Palm Beach after leaving his daughter, Nan, in Athens to begin her freshman year at the University of Georgia. He said goodbye with a big tear sliding down his cheek; interviewing Palmer at his office in Bay Hill and asking him how many autographs he had signed in his life? He wasn’t sure, but aside from golf tournaments, bump in requests at events, banquets, airports, hotels and in the street, his secretary, before she retired a decade or more ago, estimated he had signed his name at least four million times. He’s still signing today.
Next year, if the creeks don’t rise, we’ll flock to Augusta National one more time to see the Big Three start the Masters again. It is a story of warmth, worthy of renewal.