Commentary

A request for another Masters memory

Originally Published: March 29, 2010
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

You have to take what you can get, and if it's a glimpse of two golf legends striding to the first tee, offering more salutes to the crowd than swings followed by a hasty retreat to the clubhouse, so be it.

Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus will be at Augusta National next week to kick off the Masters in their roles as honorary starters, mindful of what it means to the game and the tournament, if not all together sold on the idea personally.

Pride cannot be dismissed just because Palmer is now 80 and Nicklaus is 70.

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer & Jack Nicklaus
AP PhotoArnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are the only two former Masters champions who are actual members of Augusta National Golf Club. In 1965, defending champion Palmer placed the green jacket over the shoulders of that year's winner, Nicklaus.

They remember what it is like to step onto the hallowed grounds with eyes cast upon them as the tournament favorites, not the opening act in a four-day drama. They prefer the cheers be for birdies and eagles, not simply getting one airborne.

So the players who accumulated 10 green jackets, a total of 25 major championships and produced thousands more memories turn to self-deprecation when it comes to their roles.

They are the only two Masters champions who are members at Augusta National, can play the course anytime they want and don't need to put their games on display, even if for a single tee shot. But they will.

Is there any better way to start the year's first major championship?

"I'm sure it probably does mean something to people," Nicklaus understated recently. "It's symbolic of what the history is of Augusta. And that's what it's all about. I'm sure Gary [Player] will probably join us shortly. I think they wanted me to do it next and then have Gary join us after that."

Palmer, Nicklaus and Player combined to win every Masters from 1960 through 1966 and 13 in all.

For now, it is just Jack and Arnie, with the Golden Bear joining the King for the first time this year.

"I think the relationship between Jack and Arnold is really special, and they understood each other, they understood their importance to the game," said British Open champion Stewart Cink. "And they both have great tournaments on the PGA Tour today. And now being paired for the ceremonial tee shot at Augusta, that crystallizes it."

Both, of course, were reluctant to take part in the duties at all.

Palmer played his 50th and final Masters in 2004. A year later, Nicklaus said his goodbyes after playing the tournament for the 45th time.

They immediately became logical candidates to resume a Masters tradition that began in 1963 when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod teed off in front of the field. Their partnership lasted more than a decade. After a few years, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen came along.

And in 1984, Sam Snead joined them, making it a threesome that in many years did far more than just hit a tee shot.

The trio of Snead, Sarazen and Nelson would often play the entire front nine, dazzling the galleries who showed up to watch them tee off early.

As they got older, the idea of playing more than a tee shot understandably was no longer feasible, but they dutifully headed to the first tee to launch the tournament, if not their drives.

[+] EnlargeNelson/Sarazen/Snead
AP Photo/Dave MartinFor years, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead played the role of ceremonial starters at the Masters.

After Snead's death in 2002, Masters officials needed some time to talk Palmer into taking on the role, which he agreed to do starting in 2007.

Nicklaus then said he wanted no part of the opening festivities, didn't want to get in Palmer's way. But Masters chairman Billy Payne made it clear they hoped Nicklaus would participate when ready.

"Arnold deserved the chance of doing that," Nicklaus said. "And doing it by himself. The Masters has meant so much to him and he's meant so much to the Masters."

It seems that Palmer, along with the club, did some lobbying to get Nicklaus to participate. It was a nice gesture, and a nicer one that Nicklaus accepted.

"[Payne] came back to me a year ago and said, 'Jack, Arnold has been doing this a few years, we would like to have you join him,'" Nicklaus said. "But my attitude in 2003, 2004 was a lot different than it is in 2009, 2010. I still had enough fire in my belly to think that I could go play and I know better than that now.

"I throw my 95-mile-an-hour club head speed at it, the golf course doesn't exactly wilt. I'm delighted to join Arnold. I'm delighted that Arnold has welcomed me to join him.

"I'm sure we'll have a lot of fun. We'll have a driving contest, but only if Arnold warms up."

Palmer did warm up by playing in the pro-am of his own Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. And in truth, Arnie is never too far from a round of golf.

Nicklaus' golf these days is more sporadic, although he put his game on display recently at the Honda Classic pro-am.

"You guys might have fun shooting 76; I don't," Nicklaus said, chuckling. "I enjoy the company. I just don't like to go out and embarrass myself. If I go out with my friends, I'm quite happy to go out and enjoy the day. Lose $10 or win $10 or whatever it might be.

"But to go out in front of a bunch of people or go on television or to talk to you guys about it when I'm done. ... I did that."

That said, Nicklaus understands why folks might be eager to see him and Palmer do more than just smack a drive off the first tee.

Why not follow it and play the first hole? Why not head over to No. 2 and play the par-5 down the hill? Why not play 9 holes ... or whatever number suits them?

"Well, I have no thoughts of playing more than that tee shot off the first hole," Palmer said. "If anything in that regard changes, I'll have to find out from here. Right now, my intentions are to hit a drive and that's it.

"He may want to play, but he'll probably play by himself if he does."

C'mon, Arnie. Really?

A few more holes would not interest you, just for old times' sake?

There is still time to persuade him, although it doesn't appear that Nicklaus will be trying to talk his longtime friend and rival into anything but enjoying the moment.

"If Arnold and I wanted to go play -- which we don't -- I think they would welcome that," Nicklaus said. "I don't think there is any question about that. But I think what we're doing is fine.

"It's a different day. It's not my event. I'm quite happy to do what they want me to do. And I'm quite happy to be part of it."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com