Sports Columns

April 11, 2014

Loran Smith: Big Three still a big deal for fans

AUGUSTA — Sinatra is gone, but we still have his music. The same is true with Nat King Cole and Elvis. It would be nice to hear them in concert again, however. With Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, we are not sure what it will be like when they are no longer the honorary starters at the Masters.

Nonetheless, they will always be relevant at Augusta National Golf Club, like former champions Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead before them. But there is that nagging fear of the emotional faucet of their lives and times being turned off when the aging process eventually robs us of their presence.

Maybe that is why the most passionate and sentimental of fans show up every year to see these champions — with 13 Masters titles among them — start the tournament with early-morning tee shots on Thursday.

They are graybeards now. Old-timers. Over the hill — but their loyal fans remain over the top when it comes to witnessing history when these former champions ride down Magnolia Lane and head to the first tee.

Eager spectators congregate between the first tee and the clubhouse. When the “Big Three” emerge from inside and make their way to the tee in the company of Billy Payne, the club’s chairman, there is an immediate parting of the crowd that reminds one of Moses and the Red Sea.

Such respect expressed the eyes of the beholders! It may not be Biblical, but it is heartwarming and uplifting — downright spiritual if you love golf the way countless Masters fans do.

Some on the scene have been around long enough to remember the exits of Hogan, Nelson and Snead. That was sad, even though Hogan never was an honorary starter. Crowds, even adoring ones, bothered Hogan, but it is doubtful that he would have been comfortable being an honorary starter.

This is the way it was Thursday, before the sun burned through the dew and dampness, before the multitudes emerged from their hangovers, eggs and bacon and third Starbucks to make their way onto the grounds and the first day of competition.

Arnold, the senior in the group, hit first. He swung as fiercely as ever, finishing with his exclamation point, the loop at the top of his swing — though not as fiercely as he did in 1964, when he won his fourth and final Masters championship.

Player, the global champion with more frequent flyer miles than Condoleezza Rice, looked very much like the same Gary Player who became the first international player to win the Masters in 1961. That was the year that Palmer, with a drive in the middle of the fairway on the last hole of Sunday’s round, only needed to hit his approach shot in the middle of the green and pick up a two-putt to become the first back-to-back winner of the tournament.

But Palmer experienced a lapse in concentration that day. He hit his approach into a greenside bunker on the right, then blasted back across the green and — before you knew it — he had made double-bogey and lost the tournament.

Fast-forward back to Thursday. Player, the beneficiary of Palmer’s lapse, looking as fit as ever in his familiar black attire, hit his ceremonial drive down the middle of the fairway. Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear — with six Masters titles — was last to hit, pounding his way on a line in the direction of Player’s ball. His shot bounded five or six yards past the South African. Like old times.

Then they moved inside for a press conference that lasted about 45 minutes. Where, other than the Masters, are former champions so revered? Where, other than Augusta, would the media want to interview past champions for the better part of an hour?

Life is made of memories, and I shall never forget a personal connection with each of the three.

There was the time when I visited Player at his ranch in South Africa — with him in Safari khakis, riding up in a pickup truck with his dog in the back, speaking Afrikaans with the workers on his ranch. When Player smiled, his dog seemed to smile.

I remember seeing Nicklaus getting ready to board his Gulfstream jet home to North Palm Beach, Fla., after leaving his daughter Nan in Athens to begin her freshman year at the University of Georgia. He said goodbye with a big tear sliding down his cheek.

I recall interviewing Palmer at his office in Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., and asking him how many autographs he had signed in his life. He wasn’t sure, but even aside from golf tournaments and bump-into requests at events, banquets, airports, hotels and in the street, his secretary — before she retired a decade or more ago — estimated he had signed his name at least four million times. He’s still signing today.

Next year, if the creeks don’t rise, we’ll flock to Augusta one more time to see the Big Three start the Masters again.

It is a story of warmth, worthy of renewal.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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