Nicklaus, Player bid emotional Masters farewell to Palmer

Jim SLATER
Honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player react as they remember Arnold Palmer as during the first tee ceremony prior to the first round of the Masters Tournament April 6, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia

Golf legends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player said a tearful goodbye to the late Arnold Palmer on Thursday as they hit ceremonial tee shots to begin the Masters.

Palmer, an iconic player who pioneered athlete endorsements and televised golf, died last September at age 87. That left Nicklaus and Player to continue the first-tee tradition with him absent for the first time.

Nicklaus grabbed his cap, raised his right arm and looked skyward to remember his absent friend.

"The Masters made Arnold in many ways because of his wins in '58, '60, '62, and '64, but I think Arnold made the Masters," Nicklaus said.

"Arnold put the Masters on the map and with his rise and his popularity, the Masters rose the same. They were both very good for each other and very synonymous with each other."

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne escorted Palmer's widow, Kit, to the first tee and they placed Palmer's green jacket over the back of his empty chair in the tee box. Palmer had been reduced to only a seated spectator role last year due to poor health.

"The ceremony was very nice. Brought Kit out and Arnold's jacket. It was done very nicely and in good taste," Nicklaus said.

"Extremely eloquent, very touching," added Player, who recalled Palmer struggling to rise from his chair last year as crowds cheered his name.

"Arnold could hardly walk to the first tee and he stood up because he had been taught to stand up. And he gave a little wave and that was very touching to me," Player said.

"And I could see him doing it in that chair today."

- 'Big three' -

All spectators Thursday received a rare Masters custom-made souvenir "Arnie's Army" button. Nicklaus and Player wore them too.

"He would have dropped over if he had seen one on Gary and me," Nicklaus said with a laugh. "It was very nice."

"It was not easy playing with him when he had the Army and they were screaming and rushing off the green before you finished, but one had to get accustomed to that," Player recalled. "That was his Army. It really was his Army. And then Jack had his Pack. So it was a wonderful time."

Nicklaus and Player also shared memories of Palmer at Tuesday's Champions Dinner and again after the ceremony, with Player recalling a Palmer visit to his homeland.

"When he visited South Africa to play some matches with me, he visited the game reserve and my farm," Player said, recalling how Palmer lifted a heavy gold bar that had defied many locals.

"It was absolutely amazing because you've got no idea how heavy that was, and I don't think anybody has ever done it since," Player said. "It was impressive."

Nicklaus recalled a veteran Palmer helping with tips and advice to a young rookie "Golden Bear" who would go on to win a record 18 major titles.

"You needed somebody, a senior player who really saw something in me and cared about me and wanted to see me do well," Nicklaus said. "I thought that was very nice."

Player said that other "Big Three" groups could have their era in golf, but duplicating the closeness of their trio would be difficult.

"I don't know if you'll ever have another 'Big Three' that will live together like we did," Player said.

"I was in Jack's home for weeks and Arnold was in my home and Jack visited my farm time and time again. It was a privilege and we all appreciated each other, which was a great friendship."