Palmer honored during ceremonial opening tee shots
April 06, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Jack Nicklaus salutes Arnold Palmer during the ceremonial opening tee shots Thursday. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The 2017 Masters Tournament got off to a somber start on a cold, chilly morning at Augusta National Country Club.
The year’s first major is a tournament steeped in tradition, and the honorary opening tee shots are one of those beloved rites the patrons are accustomed to. This opening ceremony is an opportunity to honor golf’s legends before this current crop of elite players begins its Green Jacket quest.
Shortly after 7:30 a.m., two of the Masters’ greatest champions, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, walked through a tunnel of patrons that led from Augusta National’s clubhouse to the first tee. The focus Thursday morning was on the man who was not there to join them, though.
This is the first Masters since Arnold Palmer’s passing in late September. Palmer loved the Masters, and the tournament loved him. He was in his prime in the nascent years of televised golf, and his charismatic, hard-charging style made for appointment viewing. He was a four-time winner here, claiming four Green Jackets on the even-numbered years between 1958 and 1964. Augusta National was the first territory conquered by Arnie’s Army, as troops from nearby Fort Gordon enthusiastically cheered for the former Coast Guardsman who was storming to victory.
Last year, Palmer was not well enough to hit a shot, but he kept the Big Three intact by accompanying Nicklaus and Player to the tee. He sat in one of the club’s white lawn chairs, and summoned all his strength just to raise himself and acknowledge the cheers that followed the announcement of his name.
This year, his Green Jacket was draped over one of those chairs, a tangible reminder of his absence.
Player wiped away tears while Nicklaus doffed his cap and looked skyward before hitting his tee shot. Patrons, who were given “Arnie’s Army” buttons upon entering the gates, were asked for a moment of silence to reflect on Palmer’s indomitable legacy.
This Thursday morning tradition had been an opportunity for this trio, whose competitiveness continued past their playing careers, to needle each other about tee shots that didn’t fly quite as fast or far as they once did. Not today. Today they were honoring their friend.
Palmer’s widow, Kit, joined Nicklaus and Player on the tee. She was escorted by Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne, who has been overseeing this ceremony for a decade, but admitted that he was nervous delivering Thursday’s opening remarks.
“It is a wonderful but also respectfully difficult day,” Payne said. “Arnold Palmer was my friend. He was your friend. Despite all the fame and fortune, he always had time for all of us. It still hurts so bad that he’s not here.”