Three greats get together for good day


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Before they teed off, Arnold Palmer joked about the group's midafternoon start.

"We'll have to play fast -- I go to bed at 5 in the afternoon," said Palmer, who turned 70 in September.

Jack Nicklaus, who just turned 60, claimed not to understand why the grouping was causing such a commotion.

"We've played together a thousand times," he said.

And Gary Player? At 64, still dressed in black, the eternal third wheel of golf's Big Three was deeply moved.

"This was a very special day," Player said.

Masters officials grouped the three champions together for the first two rounds at Augusta National this year as a way of saluting them at century's end.

Not surprisingly, fans stood and cheered their every step around the course in yesterday's first round, played in a gusting wind under blue, cloudless skies.

Quite surprisingly, the three held their own on a daunting course that yielded only nine subpar scores in 95 rounds yesterday.

"I thought we all played well, really well," Nicklaus said. "We just didn't score as well as we played."

Through 13 holes, Nicklaus and Player were ahead of Tiger Woods, who finished at 3-over 75, and Palmer was tied. They all faded at the end of a round that took more than five hours, but the damage was relative. Nicklaus finished with a 74, Player with a 76 and Palmer with a 78.

For the record, 12 of the 31 other groups shot a poorer cumulative score.

"If we had made any putts at all, some really good things could have happened," said Player, the South African who won the last of his three Masters titles 22 years ago. "Jack, in particular, played well."

The high-quality golf was just a bonus, of course. The grouping was going to be a hit as a sentimental journey regardless of how the three played. Not only have they combined for 13 Masters titles and 130 appearances, but each brought his own, moving story to the round yesterday.

Palmer, a prostate cancer survivor, is a recent widower, his wife of 45 years having died last fall after a long bout with cancer. His sadness was evident in the slope of his shoulders, despite the brave front he put on.

Player, renowned as a fitness freak years before it was fashionable, was as trim and muscled as he was in his prime -- truly one of the century's singular athletes.

And Nicklaus, barely a year removed from hip replacement surgery, showed that he can still reach back and play at a high level. Seemingly somewhat miffed at being lumped in a ceremonial grouping just two years after he almost won the Masters with a last-round charge at age 58, he responded with 15 straight pars to open yesterday's round.

"Nostalgia? Didn't really notice it," Nicklaus said. "I guess I'm a funny duck. I come here to play golf."

The three were bitter rivals for years at the top of the game, as competitive on the course as they were friendly off it. Now they're business associates -- they're collaborating on a new course in South Carolina -- and the oldest of the old guard in a sport that actually treasures its past.

They shared a laugh on the first tee as they waited to start yesterday, with a huge gallery waiting to follow them.

"I forgot what we were talking about," Palmer said later.

"I think we were talking about how old we are," Player said.

Palmer, who hasn't made the cut at the Masters since 1983, seemed to rise to the occasion for much of the day. His fellow Orlando, Fla., resident, Mark O'Meara, playing in the group in front of them, pumped his fist at Palmer as Palmer walked off No. 14 standing at just 3-over par. A fan shouted, "You're still up, Arnie," referring to his early-to-bed comment.

"I hit some nice shots," Palmer said with a shrug. "But it was a long, long round. Now I really do need to go home and go to bed. But it was still a nice day. I think the fans really enjoyed watching us out there together again. I think everyone enjoyed it except Gary, Jack and myself. We all wanted to play a little better."

Particularly Nicklaus. His 74 included missed putts of 3 feet at No. 8, 6 feet at No. 15, 3 feet at No. 16 and 5 feet at No. 17.

"You outscored Tiger today," a reporter squealed as Nicklaus settled into a chair in the interview room.

"I didn't outscore what I wanted," he said with a frown. "That's the best round of golf I've played here in quite a few years, and I didn't get anything out of it. Not one birdie. All those short putts missed."

But still a good day?

"The first time I saw Arnold, I was 14 and he was standing on a practice tee in the pouring rain at the Ohio amateur championship, just a powerful, young guy pounding ball after ball," Nicklaus said. "I sat out and watched him for half an hour and then went in the clubhouse and asked who he was. I just thought he was amazing.

"The first time I saw Gary, he was 22 and had this swing where he just blocked the ball. I remember Ben Hogan asking him if he spent a lot of time practicing. Gary said yes. Hogan said, 'Well, double it.' "

That was when?

"Forty-something years ago," Nicklaus said with a smile. "Not that long ago, right?"

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