Masters Traditions: Honorary Starters
THE BIG THREE: Palmer, Nicklaus and Player
Every sport pays tribute to its past champions. While former baseball stars might toss out the first pitch, and ex-gridiron heroes might participate in the coin toss, the Masters Tournament does them one better.
The opening ceremony at Augusta National Golf Club features a trio of honorary starters, who happen to be three of the biggest names in golf.
Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have each carried on the tradition, which formally began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod starting the tournament together.
Palmer, Nicklaus and Player are known as the Big Three, and their fierce battles from the 1960s are legendary. Time has not diminished their enthusiasm for competition.
Each wants to hit the best shot, and last year was no exception. Palmer pumped his fist after his tee shot, and Player added a leg kick after splitting the fairway.
Nicklaus, the youngest of the trio, just smiled after outdriving Player by a couple of yards.
“It’s not bad when you think he used to outdrive me by 50 yards,” Player said.
While Hutchison and McLeod began the tradition, it flourished in the 1980s with Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson all hitting opening tee shots. Ken Venturi, a former Masters runner-up and CBS analyst, filled in one year.
The ceremony went on hiatus from 2003 to 2006, then club and tournament Chairman Billy Payne persuaded Palmer to hit the tee shot in 2007, and Nicklaus joined him in 2010. The addition of Player in 2012 brought golf’s Big Three full circle.
In the end, all three enjoyed just being together again at Augusta, even if just for a few moments.
“I think we’d all love to wind the clock back a few years and play, because it was such a great tournament and great thrill to stand on that first tee, have the butterflies and get that first tee shot out of the way,” Nicklaus said.
WHY HUTCHISON AND MCLEOD?
Jock Hutchison won the 1920 PGA Championship and added the British Open title in 1921 to become the first U.S.-based player to win that championship. He was born in St. Andrews, Scotland, but moved to the United States and became a citizen.
Fred McLeod, a Scotsman, won the 1908 U.S. Open.
So how did they become the first honorary starters at the Masters?
What the two had in common is that each had won at Augusta National Golf Club. Not the Masters, but the PGA Seniors’ Championship.
The inaugural event was held in 1937, and Hutchison won the 54-hole tournament by eight shots.
In 1938, McLeod won the tournament, which had been shortened to 36 holes. He won an 18-hole playoff by two shots.
The tournament was held in Augusta only those two years and later moved to Florida.
WHEN DID THE TRADITION BEGIN?
The earliest records of Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod teeing off together in the first pairing of the tournament came in 1954. Through 1962, the two would traditionally play nine or 18 holes, then withdraw from the tournament.
In 1963, the formal tradition began.
“As has been the tradition for years, two grand old champions will start the parade Thursday as the opening twosome,” The Augusta Chronicle reported in 1963.
“Leading off the Masters is the greatest honor we can ever have,” Hutchison said in a 1963 interview. “I would rather do this than win a tournament.”
According to an Augusta Herald article, Hutchison turned to McLeod after playing nine holes in 1963 and quipped, “I beat you on the front nine.”
“You ought to,” McLeod replied, “you’re younger than I.”
In 1964, the words “honorary starter” were listed next to their names in the list of tee times for the first time.
Hutchison continued as an honorary starter through 1973, then quit because of declining health. He died in 1977 at 93 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2011.
McLeod carried on the tradition through 1976. A month later, he died at age 94.
“I have a personal feeling of deep loss,” Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts said. “Freddie’s death brings down the curtain on one of the unusual events that took place here every year, opening things up.”
EARLY WINNERS: Nelson, Sarazen and Snead
When Masters Chairman Hord Hardin revived the tradition of honorary starters in 1981, he went back to two of the tournament’s earliest winners: Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen.
Nelson had earned his place in tournament lore with his stirring victory in 1937 and his playoff victory against boyhood pal Ben Hogan in 1942. He retired from competition after World War II but still played in the Masters, and he frequently played with the 54-hole leader in the final pairing, as was the custom.
Sarazen hit the most famous shot in tournament history with his double eagle at the 15th hole in the final round in 1935. He won his only Masters the next day in a 36-hole playoff against Craig Wood.
Nelson stepped aside in 1983 to tend to his ailing wife, Louise, and was replaced by two-time Masters runner-up Ken Venturi.
Nelson returned to action the following year, and he and Sarazen were joined by another golf legend: Sam Snead, a three-time Masters winner.
The trio – with Nelson’s classic swing, Snead’s sharp wit and Sarazen’s unique plus-fours – made Thursday’s opening ceremony a must-see event through 1999. Sarazen died a month later.
Nelson hit his final tee shot in 2001 – “OK, ball, one more time,” he said that morning. He died in 2006 at 94.
Snead performed the ceremony by himself in 2002, but it was his last time. He died the following month at age 89.
Ken Venturi won the U.S. Open and twice finished as a runner-up at the Masters, but he suffered a bad case of nerves in 1983 when asked to serve as an honorary starter.
Venturi joined Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead when Chairman Hord Hardin asked him to replace Byron Nelson.
“Here I am, an Open champion, I’ve played in 14 Masters, and on that morning, I couldn’t catch my breath,” Venturi told The Augusta Chronicle in 2000. “I said to myself, `You stupid, why did you say yes to this.’ All I could tell myself was don’t whiff it.”
Turns out, Venturi did just fine.
“I tried to settle down and trust my instincts, and I don’t know how I did it, but I caught the ball square on the clubface and blew it over the bunker,” he said.