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Masters legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player pay tribute to Arnold Palmer

The honorary starters opening the Masters is a well-worn tradition at Augusta, but the first edition without Arnold Palmer had a special meaning for everyone on the first tee.

The Masters - Round One
Jack Nicklaus acknowledges his friend Arnold Palmer on the first tee of the 2017 Masters.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National executes a perfect balance between hosting an event that can make you feel like it’s 1960 while also utilizing an arsenal of advanced technology that a course with fewer resources, and that’s all of them on this here planet, can only dream about.

The first thing I noticed when I hit the pristine, carpet-like turf dashing up to the first tee at the Masters was the hum of the SubAir system. Augusta is reputed for its firm embrace of decades-old traditions that many consider antiquated, but beneath that classic presentation is technology like the SubAir. Augusta has one of the most comprehensive and advanced SubAir systems in the world and it’s working to suck all the moisture out of a course that’s been pounded with rain all week.

As I climbed the hill, the hum of the SubAir started to fade and scale was tipped overwhelmingly toward tradition. It was downright chilly and and it was 7:30 a.m. ET. No players were on the course. But it was difficult to even move as the crowds swelled to eight- and 10-deep around the first tee, eventually just becoming one uninterrupted mass of patrons stretching all around the tee box back to the putting green, the clubhouse oak, and down the first fairway. Those with clubhouse access gathered on the veranda, which also became two- or three-deep along the railing where there was a view of the tee box.

There were clusters of green-jacketed members, kids on shoulders, pros like Rickie Fowler, and just the regular patron who felt compelled to be there at dawn before the tournament had even started. A scraggly looking fellow in a garish outfit that featured shorts emblazoned with the flag of South Africa stood next to some regal-looking green jacket. The size of the group reminded me of the Ryder Cup, where there’s minimal golf but thousands hopelessly crowd around just a couple matches trying to maybe see the top of a club on a swing.

They came to see an 81-year-old and a 77-year-old and honor a man who was no longer there. This was the first ceremonial tee shot to open the Masters since Arnold Palmer’s death. Golf’s original, and only “Big Three” was down to just two. Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player would open the 2017 Masters in a ceremony that was more a tribute to the King, probably Augusta’s most favorite player in its tournament history, than it was anything else.

Player and Nicklaus emerged from the clubhouse and ambled through a tunnel of patrons to get to the first tee. Anyone sitting down rose and joined the applause. The applause quieted and then moments later, Augusta chairman Billy Payne came through the human tunnel with Palmer’s widow, Kit, on his arm. They then took a moment with a draped piece of clothing on a chair, and you try not to get too sentimental and swept up in the sometimes cloying traditions of the Masters, but resistance was futile here.

Masters ceremony
ESPN

Directly across from me on the tee was Cori Britt, who started working for Palmer when he was 12 and became his right-hand man over the years. Britt gulped hard and wiped his cheek as Payne made his remarks honoring the legend who is as responsible as any champion for making this tournament what it’s become.

Player told me at the start of the week that he’ll always think of Palmer’s last time as an honorary starter every time he walks by the first tee. In April 2016, his health was reportedly not strong, but as Player told it, he found some sort of strength in that ceremonial moment.

He could hardly get up. He was in a chair. My hero of all time is Winston Churchill and Churchill said “manners maketh the man.” And Arnold was sitting in the chair and he could hardly get up and they announced “Arnold Palmer” and [grunting to simulate Palmer’s movement] he got up anyway. He stood. Manners. Always when I walk by the first tee I’ll think of that.

On the tee, both men wiped their eyes and Nicklaus pointed to the sky when it was his turn to swing.

The Masters - Round One
Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus get emotional on Augusta National’s first tee.
Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Player and Nicklaus tried not to get too sentimental in the lead-up to the ceremony, rather exchanging a series of barbs about who was going to hit it farther. Rory McIlroy said he helped Jack change the adjustable settings that all these new drivers boast.

I adjusted his driver for him because he's trying to hit it longer than Gary Thursday morning. I told him, if he hits it longer than Gary, I want a mention because I adjusted the weight in his driver. He kept hitting it left. I said, If you adjust this, it might help. Obviously he's very old school and whatever. I adjusted it for him and he started hitting these little fades. I was like, Perfect, there you go.

Not to be outdone, Player told Shane Bacon’s Clubhouse podcast on Tuesday that he had contacted Callaway about getting their newest Epic driver because he really didn’t want to lose to Jack. Technology and tradition were blending again here at the Masters.

Player also got to the range at 6:30 a.m. ET to warm up, a routine that will never stop being amusing for a ceremonial drive (I also chuckled at the notion of a caddie bringing a full Tour bag to the tee with all 14 clubs in it). Nicklaus said he was still asleep at 6:30, a luxury that Player said he couldn’t enjoy because he lives as a farmer. They can be as entertaining as a Rory drive rocketed into the sky and their joint press conference afterwards was just that.

Player popped his drive out to the right a little bit while Jack hit a low liner that we think went farther — not because it was measured but more because Player promptly blurted out it was “a tie.” After some more applause, the ceremonial group — Kit, Payne, Nicklaus, Player, caddies — shuffled off and the first tee starter quietly slid out the names of two golf icons and replaced them with Daniel Summerhays and Russell Henley, the first tee time that was rapidly approaching. Just like that, it was over and four days of the shots that do count began.

The shots don't matter and some years it may get a little treacly, but the ceremonial tee shot is one of those traditions that can hit you in certain years and this was one of them. We hope we have Player and Nicklaus around forever, but Masters week is one of the few chances we get that brings them together and puts them into the public spotlight. This year was a reminder that we never know how many more of those opportunities and gatherings we might get.