The news Tuesday that Arnold Palmer won’t hit a ceremonial opening tee shot at The Masters was a reminder that time marches inexorably on, eventually robbing even the greatest athletes of their physical capabilities.
It also got me thinking about who eventually will succeed Palmer in the pantheon of legends who annually have kicked off the year’s first major with a swat – or a bunt – down the opening fairway.
The Masters’ honorary starter tradition began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, each of whom won a PGA Seniors’ Championship at Augusta National in the late ’30s. After McLeod passed away in 1976, the tee was vacant until Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson took the mantle in 1981, with Sam Snead joining them three years later. Those three titans won six Masters and 19 majors combined.
Sarazen died after the 1999 tournament, Nelson stepped aside after 2001 and Snead died following the 2002 event. The tee was once again vacant until Palmer stepped up in 2007; Jack Nicklaus joined him in 2010 and Gary Player in 2012. The Big Three together own 13 green jackets and 34 major titles.
So long as Palmer is present on the first tee on Thursday, even without taking a swing, he should not be replaced. Down the road, the most logical candidate to become an honorary starter would be Tom Watson, the winner of two Masters among eight major titles. Another who will merit consideration is Ben Crenshaw, the two-time Masters champion who emcees the tournament’s annual Champions Dinner.
Nicklaus, 76, remains in good health, and Player, 80, is ageless. For the foreseeable future, they will make a fine twosome.