Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player kick off 2012 Masters with opening tee shots

Arnold Palmer celebrated his ceremonial first tee shot with Augusta Chairman Billy Payne on Thursday morning.
Kohjiro Kinno / SI

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The 2012 Masters kicked off just the way you'd hope: three balls in the fairway from golf's three living legends.

Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were joined by Gary Player, who made his debut as an honorary starter, to hit the ceremonial opening tee shots on a clear, sunny Thursday morning at Augusta National. The tradition dates to 1963, but this group of starters had more major-championships (34) and green jackets (13) than any ever assembled on the first tee box.

It was a heck of a scene. Crowds gathered 10 deep — in the shallow spots — around the tee for a glimpse of the show. "This is unreal. Unreal," said Zach Silver, a 21-year-old from Lebanon, N.H., who was attending his first Masters and getting his first close-up of the Big 3. "I actually got a fortune cookie yesterday that said all your dreams will come true. This is like a Mastercard commercial."

At Wednesday's Par 3 Contest, Nicklaus, Palmer and Player chatted constantly with each other and hammed it up with galleries through their rain-shortened round, all three holes of it. But Thursday morning was a different atmosphere. It was tournament time, and the Hall of Famers all exuded an air of nervous intensity. No one wanted to hit a poor shot.

Palmer went first, knocked it down the middle and high-fived Chairman Billy Payne, the morning's master of ceremonies, as he walked off the tee.

Player stepped up next, took an extra practice swing and busted a nice draw up the fairway, over the crest of the hill.

Jack was the anchorman. He took a quick deep breath before stepping in and puring one.

Three pressure-packed moments with three giants of the game, three balls in the fairway. Well, what did you expect?

After it was over, the three held a joint press conference, and Player said he was happy to be added to this year's ceremony, which completed golf's greatest triumvirate.

"Well, it was a great thrill, having had this wonderful relationship, great friendship with Arnold and Jack for a long, long time and having traveled extensively around the world together," Player said. "We've even cried together, and we've laughed together, and we've had good times."

"I think it's very appropriate, matter of fact," added Palmer. "We have played golf all our lives together. And the press, you people, have made an issue of the Big 3, and we have kind of had a pretty good run here at Augusta. So I think today was very appropriate for the starting of the tournament, and I hope it continues for a while.

"And I'm hungry," he added, breaking up the room.

The legends were asked if they saw another Big 3 in golf today. Some would say the trio of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy might qualify, but Jack, Arnie and Gary see it differently.

"There's a lot more players today," Nicklaus said. "I think all of us probably agree that Tiger is still the dominant force in the game, even though he's struggled up until a couple of weeks ago, but there are a lot of other players that are awfully good."

Said Palmer: "I think Gary and Jack and myself, we did a lot of golf television or television golf, and that's how the Big 3 kind of got that name. And of course, the record here at Augusta is part of it, too. But the fact that we were together competing against each other in the early days of television had a lot to do with the whole thing."

Added Player: "Jack, Arnold and myself, we won over 350 golf tournaments in our lives, and we won 56 major championships, counting regular and Senior Tour. So it was done over a certain amount of time. So I think to be fair to these golfers, you've got to give them more time to sort out who will be the eventual Big 3."

In other words, it's going to be a while before we find this kind of greatness gathered in one tee box again.

In a press conference filled with light moments, the best exchange happened after the three friends were asked if they called each other for advice on when to retire as the end of their careers approached.

Nicklaus (to Palmer): "You didn't call me at all. I was going to retire at 35."

Palmer: "Last time you called me you wanted to go fishing,"

Nicklaus: "And you haven't taken me up yet."

Palmer: "I am going to, though."

Nicklaus: "I wish you would. Okay. Monday?"

Palmer: "No, that's too soon." (This cracked everyone up.)

Nicklaus: "Not really."

Player: "You tell us the story about us all retiring at a certain age, and you said you wouldn't. And when Jack and I came here, what you had to say."

Nicklaus: "We were going to be 35 and we weren't going to play anymore. But you said, 'No, that's not me. I'm going to keep playing.'"

Palmer: "That's right. You guys kept saying you were going to quit at 35. I said, bulls—. No more thoughts of quitting at 35 than …"

Nicklaus: "82."

Palmer: "Hey, if I could do it, I would be doing it right now."

Nicklaus: "I think we all would."

It was another unforgettable morning at the Masters. Also making an appearance at the tee shot ceremony was Phil Mickelson, clad in a green jacket. Mickelson doesn't tee off today until 1:52 p.m. — in the final group of the day — but he was in attendance by the first tee at 7:30 this morning. Mickelson didn't have an official role in the proceedings. He just hung out, greeted a few fans, and watched the show.

Wouldn't you have done the same?