AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Tradition struck again at the Masters with three giants of golf — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player — hitting the first shots on Thursday to launch the 79th Masters Tournament.
Player won bragging honors by driving a few feet past six-times winner Nicklaus, who stole the spotlight on Wednesday with an ace at the Par-3 Contest.
The 85-year-old Palmer, who skipped the Par-3 event because of a cranky shoulder injury, yanked his tee shot left toward the ninth green.
Crowds packed the first tee in front of the stately Augusta National clubhouse with defending champion Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and Rickie Fowler, who was teeing off in the last group of the day, among the current players taking in the spectacle.
“It shows that they have respect for the game,” said South African Player, 79.
Two Scottish-American major winners Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod initiated the tradition of honorary starters in 1963, and they were followed by luminaries Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Ken Venturi over the years.
Another change in the starters’ lineup could be on the horizon.
Palmer, nicknamed “the King” for his role in popularizing the game with his dynamic style in the early days of TV coverage, is slowing with age.
Seven-times major winner Palmer bowed out of the Par-3 Contest because of his shoulder and halting gait and Ben Crenshaw stepped in for him to play alongside Nicklaus and Player.
Crenshaw, twice a Masters winner, has announced this will be his last Masters as a competitor and the 63-year-old Texan could be in line for future ceremonial honors.
Peering into the future, other candidates who could merit consideration might include three-times winner Nick Faldo or twice winner Tom Watson.
One brilliant candidate might have been Seve Ballesteros, a two-times champion who would have been 58 on Thursday had he not been taken by cancer. The charismatic Spaniard inspired a spate of Europeans that followed to win the green jacket.
Perhaps tradition-driving Augusta National will consider another symbolic start to the year’s first major.
Intent on promoting the growth of golf, the Masters has joined in fostering amateur championships around the globe and a competition at Augusta National on the eve of Masters week for youth players aged seven through 15.
To inspire golf’s young charges, what better way to start the Masters than to see the likes of Effie Perakis of Illinois, or Jay Leng, Jr. — the girls’ and boys’ winners of Augusta’s Drive, Chip & Putt Championship — join in hitting the first balls.
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes