As the sun began to bathe Augusta National Golf Club on Thursday morning, Jack Nicklaus stood on the first tee, removed his hat and looked to the sky to salute Arnold Palmer.
It was one of many touching tributes to Palmer, who passed away in September, as the 81st edition of the Masters commenced. It is the first Masters Palmer has not attended since 1955. A white lawn chair with a green jacket draped over it was on the first tee in honor of Palmer. A moment of silence was observed. Palmer’s widow, Kit, was on the tee.
Nicklaus, 77, the record six-time Masters champion, and Gary Player, 81, a winner of three green jackets, hit the ceremonial tee shots. Nicklaus, who had Rory McIlroy adjust his driver on Tuesday, pumped his drive down the middle of the fairway, just a few yards past the tee shot of Player.
“This is a wonderful and difficult day,” Masters chairman William Payne said. “Arnold Palmer was more than a King. He was my friend. He was your friend.”
And no two were better friends with Palmer than Nicklaus and Player.
Photos: Masters honors Arnold Palmer before first tee ceremony
Though the three were fierce rivals on the golf course, it never interfered with their friendship. They traveled the world together, staying at each other's houses and forging a bond that outlasted their playing careers. They loved to needle each other — Nicklaus told of badgering Palmer after he shot a 75 — and swap stories — Nicklaus started chuckling when Player began telling one, having heard it before.
Mostly, though, they simply loved being around each other.
"There will be other big threes. But I don't know if you'll ever have another big three that will live together like we did," Player said. "It was a very, very unusual time in history, and it will be interesting to see if there is again. And it was a privilege and we all appreciated each other, which was a great friendship. It's hard to be highly competitive against people and have a great friendship. And yet I sit here today and Jack Nicklaus is my best friend in the world."
Memories of Palmer have dominated conversations this week, and this was particularly true for Nicklaus and Player. They've been asked to share memories of their friend by just about everyone, and were among five players asked by Ben Crenshaw to tell stories about Palmer at Tuesday night's Champions Dinner.
"The dinner was a nice dinner, and Arnold was well represented with some nice talks," Nicklaus said.
Palmer won seven major championships during his career, but is best known for the four he won at Augusta National. The peak of his career coincided with televisions becoming commonplace in American homes, and the two were a perfect match.
"The popularity of the game was really stimulated by Arnold," Nicklaus said. "The Masters made Arnold in many ways because of his wins in '58, '60, '62, and '64; but the other way around, I think Arnold made the Masters. Arnold put the Masters on the map and with his rise and his popularity, the Masters rose the same. I think they were both very good for each other and very synonymous with each other."