It was the least surprising news to come out of Bay Hill this week, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.
Arnold Palmer will not hit the opening honorary tee shot at the Masters Tournament this year. The King called up Augusta National Golf Club and Masters chairman Billy Payne on Monday and made it official. His Big Three mates Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will have their annual long-drive competition without him, though Palmer will hopefully be present on the tee box monitoring his old friends.
At 86 years old, Palmer still plans to attend the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, but his body just won’t allow him to take his familiar lashing swing on Thursday morning. A shoulder injury that kept him from participating in the Par-3 Contest last year has never fully recovered. His health has kept him in a more limited role this week at Bay Hill, where he won’t conduct his usual pre-tournament news conference and used a golf cart to get around the driving range Monday to greet players.
“I would love to go on doing it forever but I don’t have the physical capability to hit the shot the way I would want to hit it,” Palmer said. “So I’ll have to be content to watch.”
In a statement released by Augusta National, Payne said he understood Palmer’s decision.
“It makes no difference whether he actually hits a drive,” Payne said. “He is a true legend in golf and will be welcomed as usual on the first tee with the other Masters honorary starters. It will be a great day.”
Nicklaus spoke with Palmer earlier in February to confirm their plans to play together in Augusta National’s Jamboree this week – conflicting with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
“I’ll be there,” Arnie told him, saying Bay Hill could do without him for one day. “I want to play. You can count on me.”
The next morning, Palmer called Nicklaus back.
“I’ve got to apologize,” Palmer said. “They won’t let me go.”
Age is undefeated, even in a ceremonial role. Exactly 15 years ago, Byron Nelson told me over the phone that 2001 would be his last turn as honorary starter. He said the strain of it was too much on him and had weighed on his mind for years before he finally decided to retire from the task.
“There’s not much to say excepting the fact that I’m 89 and will be 90 by the next time, God willing,” Nelson said. “I do not play golf, very seldom, and the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in golf is tee off there in front of all those people and hit the ball after I never hit the ball (all year).”
Nelson still returned to Augusta National through 2005, presiding as host over the Champions Dinner. Unable to make the trip from Texas to Georgia in 2006 for the first time since his first Masters start in 1935, Nelson turned the dinner duties over to Ben Crenshaw. Nelson died in September 2006 at age 94.
The honorary starters have been a Masters tradition most years since 1963, when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod officially kicked things off in recognition of their past victories at Augusta National in the Senior PGA Championship. Informally, the pair started teeing off in the first group together in 1954 and would withdraw after nine or 18 holes.
Hutchison retired from the honorary role in 1973 and McLeod in 1976.
It was in 1981 when Nelson and Gene Sarazen first accepted the role that the tradition became beloved. Ken Venturi was a one-time replacement for Nelson on the tee in 1983 before Sam Snead stopped competing and made it a trio in 1984.
Sarazen and Snead are the only ones to never retire from the honorary starter duty. Sarazen took part in it through the 1999 Masters. The Squire died a month later on May 13, 1999 at age 97.
After Nelson retired in 2001, Snead went out alone in 2002 for the ceremonial tee shot and plunked a spectator in the glasses outside the ropes near the big scoreboard. Six weeks later, on May 23, Snead died at age 89.
After Snead’s passing, the tradition went dormant until Palmer took his rightful place on Augusta’s first tee in 2007. His friends Nicklaus (2010) and Player (2012) eventually joined him.
Palmer competed in his 50th and final Masters in 2004, but he needed two years off before accepting Payne’s invitation to restore the tradition.
“When I quit, I just wanted to think about not playing in the Masters and get over that, and then I would be ready,” Palmer said in 2007. “And I’m ready.
“It’s a great thrill for me, and of course, an honor.”
It’s been a bigger thrill for the fans to see these revered champions take that first tee first thing on Thursday morning. Despite the effort it takes to get through the traffic and be among the thousands who surround that first tee before 8 a.m., it is one tradition I have never missed in 20 years of covering the Masters.
To be able to see Sarazen, Nelson, Snead and now Palmer take their final swings at Augusta National were all unforgettable thrills. If we’re lucky (and live long enough), we’ll keep watching Nicklaus and Player keep up their competition for years to come. Player intends to remain fit enough to keep doing it another 20 years until he’s 100.
As much as it meant to all the Augusta champions who have filled the role, it’s meant more to the patrons than they can even comprehend.
“It’s not going to hurt the tournament if people don’t see me teeing off,” Nelson said 15 years ago.
It does hurt, however. Every one of these champions meant so much to the game and to the Masters.
None of them more than Palmer, who deserves as much credit as club founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts for making the Masters what it is today.
Palmer arrived in Augusta for the first time in 1955, playing his first Masters round with Sarazen. His charisma and style coincided with the Masters being broadcast on television and made him the tournament’s most popular champion.
Arnie’s Army emerged in 1958 when he won the first of his four green jackets under the approving support of Fort Gordon soldiers who received free admission and manned the scoreboards. You didn’t have to be enlisted to join the legion of fans who flocked to see Palmer at his peak.
His army will reconvene bright and early April 7, if only to see him cheer on his friends. I guarantee you a simple wave from the King will still draw the loudest roar of the day.