AUGUSTA, Ga. — Arnold Palmer didn’t hit a ceremonial first tee shot to kick off the 80th Masters on Thursday morning, but he still played a big role.
Khaki-wearing, polo-sporting patrons walked as fast as they could — they wouldn’t dare run on these hallowed grounds — toward the tee to secure a spot along the ropes. It was a symphony of squeaking sneakers on the wet grass, everyone hurrying to watch their heroes — the most orderly mob you will ever see.
The 86-year-old Palmer was still a part of the coronation, still the reigning King. The proceedings started at 7:56 a.m., and the crowd started to hum. The hum turned into an applause when ceremonial starters Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player made their way through the sea of people from the clubhouse to the tee.
“Like royalty,” said one of the patrons.
Palmer, a four-time Masters champion, wore a green jacket and was helped to a white chair behind the first tee. Nicklaus said afterward that Arnie’s balance isn’t good. At the Champions Dinner on Tuesday, Nicklaus told Palmer he should consider just putting the ball off the tee, if he were able and willing. Arnie said he would think about it, but on Thursday morning Palmer decided against it.
“I think everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee,” Nicklaus said, “and I think Arnold was happy to be on the tee.”
Palmer played in his last Masters in 2004 and competed in his last Par-3 Contest a year ago. Arnie has hit the ceremonial tee shot the past nine years, starting in 2007. Nicklaus joined in 2010 and Player in 2012. Because of his declining health, Palmer said last month he would miss the ceremonial tee shot this year but still be there to watch.
At 7:58 a.m. Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne welcomed the crowd to the playing of the 80th Masters and then introduced the three legends, who cumulatively have won 13 green jackets. Nicklaus, 76, is celebrating the 30th anniversary of his sixth Masters win, and Player, 80, recorded one of the nine holes-in-one at Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest. They both still got it.
Palmer stood and raised his left hand when he was introduced. Then he sat back down and watched the other members of the original Big 3 take their turn. Player, who dedicated his shot on Thursday to Arnie, striped his ball down the middle of the fairway. Nicklaus followed with a drive that missed the fairway left, but everyone watching knew he could save par from there in his sleep.
Palmer stood and took a photo with Nicklaus and Player, then Jack helped Arnie off the first tee and to a golf cart. As Nicklaus supported Palmer, Arnie lifted his left arm, smiled and gave a thumbs up. The crowd cheered. Grown men stood in awe.
“Both Gary and I felt that it was more about Arnold today than anyone else,” Nicklaus said, “and that’s just fine.”
Palmer didn’t hit a tee shot, but the Masters still officially started on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club, and he was as big a part of it as ever.
Everything was right.