ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Arnold Palmer will be on the first tee to help start the Masters this year – but without his golf clubs.
Palmer said Tuesday he has told Augusta National that he will not be hitting the ceremonial tee shot next month, a role the four-time Masters champion had taken on since 2007. Jack Nicklaus joined him in 2010 and Gary Player, the other member of the “Big Three,” was added in 2012.
“I plan to go out to the first tee with the chairman on Thursday morning and watch Jack and Gary sweat it out and hit the shots,” Palmer said.
The 86-year-old Palmer is slowing down, even choosing this year at Bay Hill not to have his news conference ahead of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Instead, he took a list of questions that were submitted last week by the golf media.
“I would love to go on doing it forever, but I don’t have the physical capability to hit the shot the way I would want to hit it,” Palmer said. “So we’ll have to be content to watch.”
The honorary starter at the Masters dates to 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod. It was revived in 1981 with Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen, and then went on a hiatus after Sam Snead died in 2002 until Augusta National chairman Billy Payne persuaded Palmer to hit the opening shot in 2007.
Palmer said he would attend the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night and be on the first tee Thursday morning before going home to Orlando, which has been his typical schedule the past few years. He also played the Par 3 Tournament, but stopped doing that last year.
“Am I disappointed by that? Well, sure, but times moves on,” Palmer said about not hitting the opening tee shot. “I stopped playing in the Masters in (2004), I stopped playing in the Par 3 last year, and now it’s time to end this part of my Masters career.”
Palmer holds the Masters record for playing 50 consecutive years, dating to 1955 when he was the U.S. Amateur champion. His first Masters victory was in 1958, the first year soldiers from Camp Gordon were offered free admission and helped to run the scoreboards. Palmer with his charisma won over the soldiers and just about everyone else, and “Arnie’s Army” took root.
He also won the Masters in 1960, 1962 and 1964 and is one of two champions – Nicklaus is the other – who are members of Augusta National.
Nicklaus said earlier this month that Palmer wanted to go with him to play in the members-only Jamboree this week, even if he were to just walk around with Nicklaus with a putter and a wedge. Palmer later declined because of his PGA Tour event at Bay Hill.
Late Tuesday night, Nicklaus tweeted his thoughts about Palmer’s absence.
“I actually heard the news while I was at Augusta National today, and like any friend and fan of Arnold Palmer, I was disappointed for him. I know how much Augusta National and the Masters Tournament have meant to Arnold throughout his career and life, so I know this wasn’t an easy decision for him. But I have been communicating with Arnold in recent weeks, and I know he is doing what is in the best interest of his health and for future opportunities to get back up on that tee with driver in hand. What is wonderful is that Arnold will be there on Tuesday night at the Champions Dinner to regale us with stories, and hopefully on the first tee with Gary and me on Thursday morning. But whether he is swinging a club or not makes no difference, because no Masters Tournament will ever start without fond memories of the impact Arnold has made there.”