AUGUSTA, Ga. – Last month, Arnold Palmer announced that his days of swinging a club at the Masters ceremonial opening tee shot were over. But on Tuesday at the annual Champions Dinner, Jack Nicklaus hoped to convince his longtime friend and rival to change his mind.
Nicklaus appealed to Palmer’s popularity at Augusta National, saying that even if he just putts it off the tee, the patrons would appreciate and applaud the effort, understanding the physical limitations the 86-year-old Palmer currently must endure.
“Let me think about it,” Palmer told Nicklaus.
On Thursday morning, with the time approaching to start the first round of the Masters, Nicklaus asked him one last time. But Palmer stuck with his original decision. He’d be sitting this one out.
And so, with Palmer indeed sitting in a chair on the first tee, Nicklaus and Gary Player struck their tee shots to officially begin play at the 80th Masters. But it was the tee shot that wasn’t struck that made the moment more emotional than usual.
“I think probably the right thing,” Nicklaus said afterward. “Arnold’s balance is not good and that’s what they were worried about.
“But I think he was delighted to be out there. I think we were delighted to have him there. I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine.”
Player, whose drive not only was longer than Nicklaus’ shot but split the fairway, said he dedicated his opening tee shot to Palmer.
“To come here today and to be on the tee with Arnold being a part of us, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass,” Player said. “It was nice to have him on the tee…
“It’s a very special moment and I think the love that is extended to us wherever we go in the world is most gratifying, that so many people would be on the first tee to see one shot.”
The day before, Nicklaus and Player were together during the Par 3 Contest. Palmer also used to be a part of that threesome, but Ben Crenshaw filled out the group last year. On Wednesday, it was Tom Watson, who is making his last official start in the Masters. “My guess is that Tom will probably join us for several years to come,” Nicklaus said.
Watson, a two-time Masters champ, also seems a likely candidate to join Nicklaus and Player as an honorary starter for future Masters, although no announcement has been made and nothing is official. “That’s not my decision to make,” Watson said when asked about it this week.
The focus, as it rightly should be, was on Palmer. His days of hitting a ball at Augusta National apparently are over, and it’s a sobering thought to process.