AUGUSTA, Ga. – They stood tied atop the second-round leaderboard 50 years ago, the Big Three in an epic showdown at Augusta National. It was all but certain that one of them would win; after all, they had swapped the Green Jacket during the previous five years, a game of musical chairs in which they were the only participants.
A Sunday afternoon shootout seemed inevitable. But it never materialized. This Masters would ultimately be decided on Saturday. That’s how they remembered it, right?
“What year was that, 1965? I remember what the third round was,” Jack Nicklaus said. He should – he shot 64 that day and would win the next day by nine strokes.
“I remember it; the wrong man won,” smiled Gary Player, who shot 69.
“I don’t remember anything,” joked Arnold Palmer, who shot 72.
Now it’s Thursday morning, 50 years later. The Big Three are sharing stories and trading barbs after hitting their honorary tee shots to begin this week’s Masters.
It’s the fourth consecutive year they’ve done that and your heart wants it to go on forever. But your head knows that it won’t, that one of these years will be the last time they’ll share the stage on the first tee at Augusta National. Who knows, maybe Thursday was that day.
After all, Arnie’s status was in doubt going into this week; he almost pulled out because of a dislocated right shoulder. He’s 85 now and just wanted to make sure he didn’t fan his tee shot.
Nicklaus is 75 and strives to stay in shape, but it’s not easy. “Nine holes on the Par 3 (Contest) yesterday darn near killed me,” he said. “… If you look at my back, it looks like a pretzel.”
Player is 79, and his lifelong devotion to fitness is paying dividends; this is the man, after all, who posed nude in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue just two years ago. But aging, alas, shows no mercy to anybody. Not even the ageless Player.
That’s why you cherish the stories they tell, reliving the days when they ruled the golf kingdom, an unprecedented trio of superstars who brought professional golf into the age of enlightenment.
Player told the story of the time Palmer was in South Africa, and Player took him on a tour of a local gold mine. One of the gold bars that was poured was set in front of them on a table, and the company representative says, “Anybody that can pick this up can have it.”
Palmer turned to Player. “Ask him if I can try.”
Player does, and the man agrees to give Palmer a chance to lift the heavy gold bar.
“Arnold goes and picks it up, and these guys’ eyes went this big,” said Player, widening his eyes.
The man, now fearing that Palmer might actually take him up on the offer, said, “I only work here.”
Replied Palmer: “You did work here.”
Player used the story Thursday to take a playful jab at Palmer’s conservative approach to money. “He’s got deep pockets and short arms and never bought me a lunch,” Player complained.
To which Palmer replied, “You wouldn’t give the ducks a drink if you owned Lake Okeechobee.”
Player then told another story in which he was staying at Nicklaus’ house during a tournament. The two were tied entering the final round.
That morning, Nicklaus’ wife Barbara made breakfast for the two, giving them each a plate of eggs.
“I’m thinking, hell, I’m a bit worried about this,” Player said with a grin. “We’re tied. So when she put the eggs on the table and she went to the kitchen, I swapped them around.
“But it didn’t help because he beat me anyway.”
But it’s not just what they accomplished, but how they accomplished it, a rare mix of competitive fire and camaraderie, rivals with mutual respect.
“Never in the history of golf have there been three people that have basically lived with each other all these years and have such respect and love for each other,” Player said.
That respect and love is shared by all. It’s why Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler and Keegan Bradley – to name just a few competitors – showed up early Thursday morning to celebrate the Big Three’s credentials. Consider that it was 7:40 a.m. and Fowler’s tee time wasn’t for another 6-plus hours.
He could’ve slept in, but a chance to watch the Big Three tee off one more time at Augusta National was worth interrupting his sleep.
Hopefully we’ll get more opportunities to see them together.
“We do the best we can with what we’ve got,” Nicklaus said. “We all enjoy getting older.
“Nobody enjoys the alternative.”