AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit their ceremonial Masters tee shots in Thursday morning, fans – who lined the first hole as the sun rose – formed a path from the tee back to the clubhouse for the Big 3. Grown men sheepishly stuck out their hands for a high five (and celebrated like their children standing beside them upon receiving one). The crowd was gridlocked, but someone was working his way through, attempting to get to the front. Fans were annoyed – until they realized it was Johnny Miller.
Miller, NBC's lead golf analyst and a three-time Masters runner-up, finally reached the front of the line and stopped Nicklaus for an embrace with the man he dueled in the legendary 1975 Masters.
“Jack said he hit it on the toe, but he had to say something because Gary put it past him,” Miller said outside the clubhouse afterwards. “Gary celebrated like he had won another green jacket.”
Player and Nicklaus both striped drives down the fairway – and Gary did indeed clip Jack. Palmer, coming off shoulder surgery hit his shot low and left. He said his only swing thought was "don't fan it."
The three legends held a press conference directly after their shots. During a week where almost every player who fills the same chairs attempts – and succeeds – in being as bland as possible, this half-hour with Nicklaus, Player and Palmer is filled with stories, jokes and wisdom. The camaraderie on display has been cultivated for decades, and Player said there is only one way to describe it.
“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,” Player said.
Jack is the youngest, at 75. Player looks the youngest, at 79. Palmer, a decade older than Jack, is 85. On a raised platform, they sat in padded black computer chairs behind a sturdy wooden desk with a golden Masters logo staring out from the front. Jack sat in the middle, and when Arnold couldn't hear a question, Jack gently repeated it. Gary sat on Jack’s right and took center stage with excitable anecdote after anecdote. When a reporter asked a foolish question, Jack answered thusly. At times, Arnold looked like he wasn't paying attention, then snapped off a one-liner. They laughed, a lot.
Player, as he is apt to do, incorporated fitness into a response about emotions on a Sunday back nine at Augusta. He concluded by saying fitness and patience were the two most important traits for success, paused and deadpanned, “I think Jack exemplifies the patience side.” Jack, noting the omission of praise for his fitness, just laughed.
Jack was asked about his hole-in-one during the Par-3 Contest, his first ever at Augusta National, and said he was tied with Arnold and Gary at 20 career aces for the longest time.
“But now [Gary] goes and plays a lot of par-3 courses,” Nicklaus said. “He’s got a course at home with a lot of 40- and 50-yard holes.” More laughter.
A question about Player’s driver specs turned to club-fitting then turned to how strong Arnold’s hands are.
“I’ve got to tell you a story,” Player said. “[Arnold] comes to South Africa, and we go down the gold mine. There must be a billion dollars worth of gold in there. They bring out a gold bar. The man puts it on the table with two hands and says, ‘Anybody that can pick this up can have it.’ Arnie says, ‘Ask him if I can try.’ And Arnold picks it up, and these guys’ eyes went this big! He says, ‘I only work here.’ Arnold says, ‘You did work here.'"
Perhaps the biggest display of respect wasn’t the thousands of fans gathered around the first tee, but three men standing at the back of the tee box. Defending champ Bubba Watson was joined on the first tee by Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, who has the final tee time of the day at 1:59 p.m. Not quite a new Big 3, but quality players who should contend this weekend.
“I don’t think I’d be getting up to watch three old men hit a ball on the first tee,” Nicklaus said on Golf Channel afterwards. “But I think it was very, very flattering that they would do something like that.”
After 20 or so unfiltered minutes with three of the greatest players in the sport, Arnold looked around and said, "I'm ready to go home."
Jack laughed and said, "Time for breakfast."