Nicklaus and Palmer should play all 18 at Augusta National

September 4, 2009

Never mind whether you believe the Masters needs an honorary starter — or more than one — to kick off the tournament.

Arnold Palmer did it last year with a tee shot, and Jack Nicklaus is going to join him next April. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gary Player decides not to let two-thirds of the old Big Three hog all the attention.

My question is this: Once Palmer and Nicklaus hit their ceremonial tee shots, who wants to see them pick up and go to the clubhouse?

My answer? Nobody.

Palmer and Nicklaus should revive an older Masters tradition and play 18 holes, not just hit meaningless tee balls.

There’s a difference between tradition and mere ceremony. The tradition of the Masters starters goes back to 1963, when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod did the honors. But they didn’t just hit a tee shot. They simply went out first and played the full 18.

When I began covering the Masters in the early 1980s, Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen were the honorary starters, two of the game’s greatest legends. They played a quick 18 holes from any tees they wanted, and they used carts when that became necessary later in their run. They didn’t keep score. At least, not a score they turned in for the tournament. They simply enjoyed a brisk round of golf.

When Sarazen became more frail, he played only nine holes, which didn’t make Snead happy. He was still loose and limber and grumbled that he wanted to play a second nine. He and the Squire were always kind of an odd couple — Sarazen the immigrant who became a sophisticated New York socialite and respected golf emcee and ambassador, Snead the West Virginia hillbilly and amazing athlete who loved to tell off-color jokes and was pretty much the opposite of sophisticated.

Eventually, Sarazen’s health declined to the point where he could only muster a tee shot. Snead acquiesced. Byron Nelson joined in for a tee shot for a few years, too, while he was still healthy enough to travel.

After Snead and Sarazen finished their nine- or 18-hole round, they usually vanished into the clubhouse. Reporters were lucky to get a few quotes from either of them every couple of years. They came to play golf, to honor the Masters and in turn be honored, and they departed with their dignity.

With the expanded TV presence at Augusta now, including an entire cable channel devoted only to golf, Snead and Sarazen couldn’t pull off quick exits these days. Jack and Arnie are experienced performers, however, and could easily deal with the attention. In fact, if Arnie and Jack played a quick 18 going on Thursday morning, it might provide an incentive for Masters officials to allow early first-round TV coverage. Even if it was just Internet video — click on for all the action! — who wouldn’t be intrigued to see Jack and Arnie battle their way through Amen Corner one more time?

They could play from any tees, they could pick up when things went bad, they could concede putts, they wouldn’t have to keep score. They could just go out and enjoy the course from a manageable length.

One Masters memory I cherish is watching Sarazen hole a 60-foot putt from across the eighth green to save a rare par sometime in the 1980s. What a piece of walking history.

Am I going to remember Arnie’s ceremonial tee shot from last year? Or any of the one-hit wonders of the last few years when Snead or Sarazen or the great Byron Nelson struck a tee shot and called it a day? I’ll remember their presence, perhaps, but not the immaterial shots.

The Masters is a place of tradition, not ceremony. Like the CBS marketing slogan says — “a tradition unlike any other.”

So, Jack and Arnie, I invite you to play all 18 in April. Caddies will be ready and waiting. So will carts and television cameras and, I’m pretty sure, all of us.

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