Nicklaus agreed to join Arnold Palmer as honorary – not ceremonial – starters at the Masters.
The difference between those words only becomes blurred if they decide to hit more than the opening tee shot.
Nicklaus already was reaching ceremonial status in 2005 when he played his last Masters without telling anyone. Then, he played his final major in the British Open at St. Andrews with the world watching, some weeping.
That spring, he was asked if it bothered him that fans only wanted to see him play.
What did they come to see?
The winner of 18 majors, the benchmark of greatness in golf? Or someone who can barely reach some of the fairways?
The Golden Bear or the Olden Bear?
“I don’t think he ever wants to be looked at like a museum piece,” Brad Faxon said Tuesday.
Palmer, a four-time champion who turns 80 next week, stopped playing the Masters in 2004 and agreed to become the honorary starter in 2007. Nicklaus said that wasn’t for him, but changed his mind at Palmer’s invitation.
“He is so deserving of this honor, and thus I felt it was his time, not mine,” Nicklaus said. “Recently, I was invited by both Augusta National and Arnold to join him on the first tee, and because he enthusiastically supported the invitation, it became an easy decision for me.”
Don’t be surprised to see Gary Player, the other member of the “Big Three,” join them over the next few years.
Now would seem to be a good time to restore some tradition at the Masters, a major already loaded with it.
The practice of an honorary starter began in 1963, although it goes back even further. Fred McLeod (1908 U.S. Open) and Jock Hutchinson (1920 PGA Championship, 1921 British Open) were both in their 70s when they were assigned the first tee time in 1954 and “led the field” during the first round.
Nine years later, they became the inaugural honorary starters.
After they died – McLeod in 1976, Hutchison in 1977– the honorary starter was revived in 1981 with Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. They often played the front nine, giving fans a glimpse of living history. No one took it too seriously, except for one time when Ken Venturi was asked to fill in for Nelson in 1983.
“We played nine holes, me and Gene Sarazen,” Venturi once said. “That might have been the best I played. I had four birdies and a bogey, and I told Gene, ‘Let’s keep going. I might be leading the tournament.’ And Gene said, ‘Are you crazy? We’re going for lunch.”’
Before long, the honorary starters were skipping holes, and it wasn’t much longer that they hit only the opening tee shot.
Sarazen once considered not even hitting the tee shot, worried that his game was not in shape. That’s when the late Masters chairman Hord Hardin said to him, “Gene, they don’t want to see you play, they just want to see if you’re still alive.”
What would be so wrong with Nicklaus and Palmer chasing after their tee shot and going at it for nine holes, or even all 18?
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” said Zach Johnson, a Masters champion who knows that nothing it out of any realm when it comes to Augusta National. “As a fan of the game, as a fan of Jack, as a player … he’s the best who ever played. You want to see him play.”
Scott Verplank played the first two rounds with Nicklaus in 1986, the year he went on to capture his sixth green jacket. He wouldn’t mind seeing Nicklaus and Palmer hit more than one shot, either.
“But only if they wanted to,” he said. “It needs to be their idea. And they would get to play the member tees.”
That isn’t the Nicklaus way, though. It never has been.
The only thing he enjoyed more than competing in majors was preparing for them. Nicklaus never played a lot of recreational golf, and he still doesn’t. His last real competition – even though it was fake – was a Skins game against Tiger Woods, Kenny Perry and Stewart Cink at the Memorial this year. Nicklaus felt an adrenaline rush that day, even though he could barely reach three fairways. Woods won on the final hole with a chip-in from 25 yards.
It was his first time playing with Nicklaus in nine years, although one thing didn’t change.
“Anyone who has ever played at the highest level always wants to play at the highest level,” Woods said.
Would the Masters turn into a carnival by having Nicklaus and Palmer play a round that doesn’t count? No. It already is the only major with a Par 3 Tournament on Wednesday, and the only major with an honorary starter.
To have Nicklaus join Palmer on the first tee is an honor, one he earned.
Anything more would be a ceremony, the one thing he disdains.