Thursday 18 January 2018

Emotional start to 81st Masters for Jack and Gary

Golfing great Jack Nicklaus arrives for the ceremonial tee off to start the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Golfing great Jack Nicklaus arrives for the ceremonial tee off to start the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

By dawn's early light in the chilly morning breeze, they gathered around the first tee at Augusta National.

TV cameras were set up. Photographers got into position. Augusta National members gathered around the famous Big Tree in front of the clubhouse across from the tee.

The rolling thunder that passed through around 3.0am had freshened up the atmosphere. Slowly, the sun peeked over the horizon. An air of expectancy was palpable.

The start of the 81st Masters. The first in over 60 years bereft of the immense presence of Arnold Palmer.

Veteran attendees, those who, in one category or another, have the privilege of being part of this ceremony each year, said it was always special, but that this, the first start without Arnold, brought an added tinge of emotion.

Looking back from my position a few yards away from where honorary starters and golfing legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player would hit off the tee, I could see the huge cohort of patrons waiting for the gate to the course to open.

Once they gained entry, they moved en masse, many taking positions down the first fairway to see where Nicklaus' and Player's balls landed, others spreading out to claim their spots on holes around the course.

Shortly after 7.30am, chairman Billy Payne led the entourage from the clubhouse area to the first tee, escorting Palmer's wife, Kit, and behind him Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, their caddies, and officials.

He laid Arnold Palmer's Green Jacket across the back of a chair. Mrs Palmer was brought forward and received a hearty round of applause from the gathering.

The chairman spoke eloquently about the sadness of Palmer's passing, and paid tribute to his memory, then called for a minute's silence. Player's eyes teared up. Jack looked emotional.

Caps off. Heads bowed. All was quiet. Then, the moment arrived - time for the official start to the Masters.

Player looked ready to play 18 holes, not just one shot. This remarkably fit and agile 81-year-old was on the practice ground at 6.30am where he hit balls and performed his stretching exercises on a towel laid down on the range. He says he can still average 70 around a normal course. He swished his club, loosened the shoulders, and raised his cap in acknowledgement of the applause that swelled up from the gallery, then stepped forward, focused, and swung nicely through the ball.

It arced into the sky and the wind took it right of centre, but it landed safely on the fairway. Cue appreciative cheers.

Jack's turn. More applause when he was officially announced. Then, he stepped forward, took off his cap and raised it to the sky.

A last salute to Arnie.

With the immortal words: "here goes nothin'" Jack carefully placed his club behind the ball, pausing before settling into his stance.

The trademark setting of the chin to the right signalled the start of the backswing and the club swung down and through. Thunk! Lovely contact. The ball sailed down the left side of the fairway.

More cheers. It appears Jack had out-driven Gary for the first time in years. After the ceremony, they spoke about the experience. Nicklaus went first.

"I thought the ceremony was very nice. Brought Kit out in Arnold's jacket. It was done very nicely and in good taste," he said.

Player agreed, saying: " I thought his talk was extremely eloquent, very touching.

"And also to have his (Palmer's) wife come out, there was a lot of thought put into that, and to have the jacket over the chair."

So what about their tee-shots? And were they nervous?

"Well, the official word was that it was a little past, but Gary's claiming a tie (laughter). But it's okay. Doesn't make any difference one way or the other. I hit a nice, solid hit and I was quite happy with that.

"I'm sure that Gary was quite happy with his, and we both - neither one of us topped it, skied it or whiffed it.

"I didn't have any butterflies. I was just trying to figure out how to hit the golf ball," said Nicklaus.

Player did not look outwardly nervous and he confirmed that view, saying: "I wasn't very nervous, no. I think the way that people accepted us was so heart-warming and the introduction about Arnold put everybody at ease."

The original Big Three, now down to the Big Two.

Long may they continue in their role as honorary starters of the Masters.

Irish Independent

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