It's Thursday morning, April 10, 2014. The 78th Masters Tournament has begun at Augusta National Golf Club, but the real action isn't happening on the golf course. The place to be, if you're lucky enough to have the proper encoded and hologrammed credential, is the interview room in the media center. That's where Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player are holding court after hitting the ceremonial tee shots that signal the beginning of the tournament.
After the usual ribbing about who outdrove whom (Player, while conceding that Nicklaus outdrove him by a yard or two, added, "But he did hit on a sprinkler"), the three were asked, for approximately the millionth time, to reflect on their long association.
"It's been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here," Player began. "We went across the world. We went down gold mines together. We visited my ranch. We've slept at each other's homes and our wives have known each other, and we have had a great friendship. We've always wanted to beat each other; we've never hidden that. But when we did win, we congratulated the other. When we lost, we congratulated the other. It's been a special journey, and I don't think there's ever been, if I may be so forward, not boastful, but factual, that three athletes have ever in the history of any sports traveled together, been together so much across the world, not just in the United States, but across the world and had an association like we've had."
Palmer, Player, Nicklaus. They've been on the world stage of their profession longer than the Beatles, but they've never been joined at the hip the way John, Paul, George and Ringo used to be. They're more like a supergroup, each having forged his reputation as an individual, then playing a lot of gigs together to the point where they did become – almost – joined at the hip.
If you're too young to personally remember presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, persimmon and balata, cardigans and kilties, you probably don't know how these three golfing greats became the Big Three. The Big Two would have made more sense, as Nicklaus and Palmer established the greatest rivalry in golf, right from its 1962 heavyweight title fight, Overthrow at Oakmont of a beginning when rookie pro Nicklaus KO'd the King on Palmer's own western Pennsylvania turf in the U.S. Open. Palmer already had five majors, a money title and a Vardon Trophy under his hitched-up belt, but Nicklaus served notice that from then on, things were going to be different. Player's role in the troika was less obvious. When Nicklaus made that 1962 U.S. Open his first professional major, Player already had two majors and a PGA Tour money title. The South African also had a slew of international victories.
So why the Big Three? And who came up with that name?
"It was Mark McCormack that gave us that moniker," Nicklaus said. "I don’t know when that actually came about. Probably late ’62 when the three of us played in the World Series of Golf. Arnold had won the Masters and the British Open that year. I had won the U.S. Open and Gary had won the PGA Championship."
Mark McCormack and Arnold Palmer
McCormack, founder of the mega-agency International Management Group, personally represented Palmer, then added Player and Nicklaus as clients. In addition to securing endorsements for them individually, he packaged them together for exhibition matches and even created a television show, "Big Three Golf," in which they competed against each other.
If any of the three had an objection to being turned into golfing gladiators, they kept it to themselves. "None of us rejected it," Nicklaus said.
Televisions were quickly taking hold in American households, and the new medium needed content. Canned matches had the advantages of a finite time period, optimal camera placement and in-game interviews with the competitors. What was not to like? Television helped grow the popularity of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus, and they returned the favor.
It didn't hurt that each member of the Big Three was so different from the other two. Palmer, ruggedly handsome with heavily muscled, deeply tanned forearms that could extricate a golf ball from just about any trouble his explosive but untamed driver got it into. A man of the people who never forgot what his father taught him: "Just remember where you came from and treat people like you’d like to be treated." Nicklaus, overweight and doughy at the beginning of his career but freakishly strong and so skilled that none other than Bobby Jones proclaimed, "He plays a game with which I am not familiar." And Player, much smaller than the other two but able to hold his own through fanatical devotion to exercise and practice. Willing to fly just about anywhere to play, he was golf's supreme international ambassador.
The exhibitions and "Big Three Golf" matches forced the participants – and their families – to spend considerable time together. The wives – Winnie Palmer, Barbara Nicklaus and Vivienne Player – already knew and liked each other from the tournament circuit, but these TV matches were a different experience, without the usual 140-odd other players and their families as options for socializing. Barbara Nicklaus said the Palmer, Player and Nicklaus families were "thrown together.
“But we loved being thrown together. Vivienne Player and Winnie and I have always gotten along well and it’s just been a great friendship through the years."
"That made a huge difference," said IMG's Alastair Johnston, who handled much of the company's representation of Palmer. "That meant they stayed at each other’s homes, that meant that the wives did things together."
Throughout the '60s, the Big Three dominated golf. They won four of 10 Vardon Trophies for low scoring average (all by Palmer), seven of 10 PGA Tour money titles and 17 of the decade's 40 majors. If the nickname had been contingent on performance, the Big Three might have had to add a fourth – Billy Casper. During the '60s Casper won more Vardon Trophies than Palmer (five to four) and nearly as many money titles as Palmer or Nicklaus (they each won three, Casper won two). Casper even titled his autobiography "The Big Three and Me." But Casper's chances of crashing the Big Three's party were nil because of one fatal flaw: He wasn't represented by McCormack.
Nicklaus and Player both eventually replaced McCormack as their agent, but by then the Big Three concept was firmly rooted in the golf culture. It only got stronger when first Palmer, then Player, then Nicklaus, moved on to the senior tour. Tournament directors fortunate enough to have all three in their fields would invariably group them, insuring added exposure for their events.
But it has been their association with Augusta National, where they combined for 13 Masters wins (six by Nicklaus, four by Palmer and three by Player), that has done the most to keep the Big Three concept alive. The Masters has used former winners as honorary starters since 1963, when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod (not Masters winners, but winners of the PGA Seniors' Championship when it was played at Augusta National) performed the duty. Palmer assumed the role in 2007. Nicklaus joined him in 2010 and Player made it a threesome in 2012.
The remaining Big Question about the Big Three is how much longer they will continue as honorary starters for the Masters. Player jokes that it won't be more than another 20 years. At this year's tournament, Palmer said, "I suppose as long as they ask me to do it."
Chimed in Nicklaus, "There's your answer."