At Par 3 Contest, Big 3 put on a show before weather interferes

Jack Nicklaus (left), Arnold Palmer (center) and Gary Player have won a combined 13 Masters titles.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — On a bright Wednesday afternoon at Augusta National, Arnold Palmer kicked off the most spectator-friendly day of the week with a little lunch on the clubhouse patio. He could've picked a table anywhere on the lawn, but he opted for a spot right next to the thin, green rope that separates the club from the public. What ensued was perhaps a Masters record for most photos taken of a man eating a turkey sandwich.

Clad in the club's green jacket, Palmer signed a few autographs, shared some laughs with his friends, polished off a couple of cherry Cokes (with grenadine) and headed out to the clubhouse to get ready for his spin around the Par 3 course. At 82, he still can't get enough of the fans — or Augusta.

"If I didn't love it, I wouldn't be sitting here," he said from his seat on the patio. "The tradition and the fans have been a part of me since 1955. The Par 3, the dinner, the tee shot tomorrow. These are all special days for me."

Shortly after his lunch, Palmer ditched the green jacket, threw on a floppy canvas hat and met the rest of his threesome, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, at the putting green near the short track's first tee. Palmer had a little health scare a couple of weeks ago. He had to go the hospital after his blood pressure spiked during the final round at Bay Hill, the PGA Tour event he hosts. Everything checked out fine, and Arnie was out of there the next day. But as the three Hall of Famers hit their practice putts and hammed it up with fans, dark clouds rolled in. You couldn't help but wonder how much longer the show would last.

"Playing with Arnold and Jack there, you know, it's coming to an end, and if you want to say our lives, our careers — it's the sunset," Gary Player said on Tuesday. "And to be playing with them, and things come back in your mind, and being together and enjoying it with the people, it's a special time."

With the sky darkening, fans swarmed the three legends on the practice green . One asked Player to do a pushup, and the nine-time major-winner, still fiery at 76, cracked: "One pushup? I do a thousand a day!"

Fans ate it up. And thanks to special areas for 16-and-under fans to get close to the action, many youngsters went home with some famous signatures.

"I got Arnold's autograph. It was nice to see him again, 'cause I saw him last year," said 8-year-old Barrett Trotter. "He's a nice man. I got to shake his hand."

The event was heading for an early finish, but that didn't mean there weren't plenty of memorable moments all around the par-27, 1,060-yard course during those three-and-half hours.

There was Johnson Wagner's son, who couldn't be more than 3, sprinting ahead of his dad to the first green, and as Wagner hollered, "Don't pick it up! Don't pick it up!" the little guy bent down and scooped up Mark Wilson's ball.

There was Jack Fleck, 90, knocking his tee shot on the second hole to 18 inches and doing a little shimmy before burying the birdie putt.

There was Thomas Bjorn canning a hole-in-one on the ninth hole and Mark Wilson jarring another on the fourth for the 74th and 75th aces in the event's 52-year history.

There was Phil Mickelson, playing in one of the first groups on the course, working the autograph lines and basking in one of the great traditions of Masters week.

There were Padraig Harrington and Jonathan Byrd tying for low round at five under and being declared co-champs, which means the two players have a chance to end the Par 3 "curse" and become the first to win both this exhibition and a green jacket in the same week.

But the featured attraction was the group of Arnie, Jack and Gary, who received what was essentially a prolonged standing ovation as they moved through the course. That's not to say it wasn't at least a little competitive. Player mentioned on Tuesday that he hopes to outdrive the other two guys at Thursday's opening tee shot, and Palmer said he still enjoys stacking his game up against his good friends. When Nicklaus left his tee shot short of the first green, he turned to his caddie and said, "Aww, Bobby, that wasn't a very good shot," and seemed genuinely disgusted, if only for a moment.

Player drilled a 20-footer for birdie on No. 1, drawing a roar from the crowd. At the second, Palmer hit it to four feet, high-fived Nicklaus as they walked down the fairway and then made the putt. The noise intensified. On the third hole, Arnie stuffed it again, this time to three feet. Fans went bananas. As the players strolled up to the green, the horn blew, and that was that. Palmer, Player and Nicklaus signed autographs for a few extra minutes, then hustled off the course, away from the approaching storm.

Palmer never got a chance to putt that three-footer. I like to think he would've made it.