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Jack Nicklaus greets past PLAYERS champions on first tee Thursday

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73-time TOUR winner won three PLAYERS titles, including inaugural event in 1974

    Written by Kevin Prise @PGATOURKevin

    PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Fifty years ago, Jack Nicklaus won the first edition of THE PLAYERS Championship. He’s not competing this year, but a Thursday grouping of fellow PLAYERS champions would’ve been happy to have him.

    “You playing with us today?” Justin Thomas asked Nicklaus with a smile on the first tee Thursday, as the 2021 PLAYERS champion readied to begin his opening round alongside defending champion Scottie Scheffler and 2015 PLAYERS winner Rickie Fowler.

    “We only have three,” Thomas noted.

    Nicklaus smiled but graciously declined the offer, before exchanging some banter with the trio ahead of its 1:40 p.m. tee time at TPC Sawgrass’ PLAYERS Stadium Course. “Not a bad finish,” he told Scheffler of his five-stroke win at last week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. The world No. 1 Scheffler offered a sheepish smile in return.

    Jack Nicklaus greets players on first tee at THE PLAYERS

    This year marks the 50th edition of THE PLAYERS, which has been contested at TPC Sawgrass since 1982. Nicklaus won three of the first five PLAYERS titles – 1974 at Atlanta Country Club, 1976 at Inverrary Golf & Country Club, and 1978 at nearby Sawgrass Country Club.

    Since TPC Sawgrass’ tournament debut in 1982 – Nicklaus competed but missed the cut – the Northeast Florida venue has evolved from “rugged and wild, to a big, beautiful park,” as Roger Maltbie said Thursday on Golf Channel’s tournament broadcast.

    Did Nicklaus then have an idea of the event’s future?

    “Well, no, we didn’t know, but I wanted to win it because Deane (Beman) wanted to make it as big a tournament as he could make it,” Nicklaus said on Golf Channel’s broadcast, “and I said, ‘I want to get it on my list, just in case they decided to make it a major.’

    Jack Nicklaus dominates early years of THE PLAYERS Championship

    “It’s very pretty,” he said of TPC Sawgrass. “The first tee here has totally changed, the stands around the first tee were mound stands … everything’s different, but the golf course is in beautiful shape. It’s the kind of golf course that, you have a day like today, they’ll shoot good scores, (but) you have a day like we can have in Jacksonville, you get some bad scores.”

    Nicklaus won 73 PGA TOUR titles, including 18 majors and those three PLAYERS titles, in a Hall of Fame career that puts him firmly in the conversation for greatest player of all time. Scheffler was born in 1996, 10 years after Nicklaus won the 1986 Masters for his 73rd and final TOUR win, but the cross-generation respect endures – Scheffler offered a “Mr. Nicklaus” greeting on the first tee Thursday.

    Scheffler teed off, Nicklaus applauded, and the world No. 1 began his chase of a repeat PLAYERS title – a rare distinction that Nicklaus, despite three PLAYERS wins in five years, never achieved.

    Kevin Prise is an associate editor for the PGA TOUR. He is on a lifelong quest to break 80 on a course that exceeds 6,000 yards and to see the Buffalo Bills win a Super Bowl. Follow Kevin Prise on Twitter.

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