THE WOODLANDS, Texas (AP) – Arnold Palmer curled in the 25-foot putt on the 18th hole, raised his right hand and acknowledged the massive, cheering gallery with a thumbs-up sign and his trademark smile.
Jack Nicklaus gave Palmer a hard handshake. Gary Player offered a pat on the back, a fitting end to a memorable day for the golf greats.
Nicklaus, Palmer, Player made up a threesome in a nostalgic, 18-hole exhibition round Saturday in conjunction with the second round of the Champions Tour's Insperity Championship.
Thousands lined the fairways at the Woodlands Country Club and several Champions Tour players joined the gallery to catch a rare glimpse of golf's “Big 3'' playing together.
“We enjoyed it,'' Nicklaus said. “We didn't make any bogeys, we made a few birdies and we hit a few nice shots and had a great time. And that's what this was all about.''
Lee Trevino played in the threesome ahead in the nine-man scramble. Miller Barber, Don January, David Graham, Gene Littler and Dave Stockton also participated.
But most of the estimated crowd of 40,000 came to see the Big 3, who hit the ceremonial opening tee shots together at the Masters for the first time this year.
This day was different, and even competitive. Naturally, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player took home the biggest trophy, shooting 11-under par.
“We didn't make it too serious,'' Palmer said, “but we didn't want to come in second, either.''
Before the round, Trevino lamented that he wasn't sure when the group would get to play together again. But Nicklaus, who said he hadn't played in public for six or seven years, said afterward that he was open to the idea.
“I'd do it again,'' Nicklaus said. “I just don't play golf. I actually hit the ball pretty decently today. I putted very well, and I wouldn't have expected that.''
The event seemed to be a huge success, with young and old fans eagerly snapping photos and lining up for autographs between every hole. They were treated not only to entertaining, up-close banter with the players, but also some solid golf.
The 76-year-old Player, who says he routinely shoots six or seven shots below his age, dropped his approach to the par-4 11th hole within 2 feet, setting up one of the group's 11 birdies.
“We birdied the living daylights out of this golf course,'' Player said. “The quality of golf was like when we were young.''
Palmer tapped in the short putt before Player and Nicklaus reached the green, and Palmer bent down and rolled the ball down a hill to Player's feet, drawing laughter from the crowd.
“We've got to hit it closer, guys!'' Palmer said, as the players boarded carts and headed for the next tee.
Just as they arrived, Trevino ripped a drive down the middle of the 12th fairway, drawing applause. The chatty Trevino turned to the crowd, raised his driver and cracked, “I may auction this off when we're finished!''
There were also reminders of the days when the men ruled the game.
Driver in hand, Nicklaus walked up to the tee box on the par-5 13th hole and turned to the gallery.
“How long is this hole?'' Nicklaus asked.
“Five hundred yards,'' someone answered.
“Driver, wedge, Jack!'' someone else said.
“Ah, those were the good ol' days,'' Nicklaus said, before hitting a drive down the right side of the fairway.
Palmer, who retired from competitive golf during the Champions Tour event here in 2006, had his share of good shots and capped the day with the long birdie putt.
“I was so happy to see him do that,'' Player said. “He got a little taste of what he did when he was young.''
Houston resident Steve Elkington, Ben Crenshaw, Andy Bean and Peter Jacobsen were among the former pros who joined the gallery to catch a peek at the game's greats back in their element.
“I love to see them,'' Crenshaw said. “We can't thank them enough. They've done it all for us. I have been so fortunate to have spent so much time with them, not only playing, but being together. They've been a great part of my professional life.''
Crenshaw hopes this isn't the last time he sees them play together. Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Trevino all seemed enthusiastic about doing it again, too.
“We had a blast today,'' Nicklaus said.