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Three aces

The Baltimore Sun

AUGUSTA, Ga.-- --The murmurs erupted into a chorus of cheers when each man took his place at the first tee box. What year was this? 1968? 2008? If it weren't for the digital cameras held high along the short fairway, like flickering torches lighting the path to the green, you'd never know. And you wouldn't care.

The first round of golf I'd ever witness at Augusta National wasn't a threesome as much as a Mount Rushmore ripoff:

Jack Nicklaus, 68, who first played here in 1959 and has won six green jackets in 45 Masters appearances; Arnold Palmer, 78, who first played here in 1955 and has four wins in 50 tries, and Gary Player, 72, who has won three times and tees off for the 51st time today. This was my introduction to golf at Augusta National.

"Let's go. I think they've teed off," said Barbara Nicklaus, the wife of one of the golfers in the annual par-3 tournament and grandmother of one of the caddies. On Jack's bag was 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus III, whom everyone calls Jackie. Don't believe time stands still? In 1986, Jackie's father, Jack Nicklaus Jr., whom everyone calls Jackie, served as caddie during the biggest and most memorable of his dad's wins.

I brought these memories -- and plenty of expectations -- with me to Augusta National. A day earlier, I did what probably 99 percent of first-time visitors had done before me: made a bee-line for Amen Corner. And I'd inhaled every single thing since then -- the trees, the flowers, the accents, the greens, the cigar smoke. All beautiful. A drink that doesn't just get you drunk; it opens your pores, triggers your glands, quickens your pulse and steals your breath. It makes you young.

To be honest, though, it wasn't until Nicklaus, Palmer and Player walked the short fairway to the first green that the Masters and Augusta National and this grand tuhnament transcended the expectations forged from years of carefully produced television.

It was just the par-3 tournament, and these were only three of the game's legends. They helped make Augusta National what it is, and Augusta National helped make them who they are.

On the second hole, Nicklaus' tee shot hit high on the green and started rolling back.

"Go!" yelled Jackie Jr., the golfer's son, the caddie's father. As the ball kept rolling, he and his mother shouted in unison, pleading with the ball -- "Go! Go! Go!" -- until it stopped just about a foot from the hole. The gallery erupted -- stomachs climbing inside, arms outside.

By the fifth hole, in the gallery, Nicklaus' clan had connected with Player's. Player's grandson, just 4 years old and tall as a 9-iron, was also serving as caddie. He doesn't know the course's history or the tournament's traditions, but his grandpa will tell him someday. With the Masters, that's what grandpas do.

Barbara Nicklaus made her way through the gallery, occasionally stopping for fans; they're all unique, and yet they're all the same. They remember seeing Jack. They had their picture taken with him when they were younger. They were there when he won. Or when he almost won. They remember where they were when Jack fired a 65 on Sunday and won that '86 Masters. Stuff you don't forget. Memories that are timeless.

"Did he putt?" Barbara asked, turning away from two fans and back toward the green. Nicklaus had, missing a 15-footer for birdie. "Oh, I turn away for a second and miss everything."

But is that true? You could turn away for a decade, but would you really miss anything? The layout, the people, the look, the feel -- does it change? I first visited the city five years ago, when I was reporting a profile of Augusta. That was the year Martha Burk brought the circus to town. The times are changing, she roared, not realizing that here, they really don't.

I remember turning off Washington Road and onto Magnolia Lane. All these years later, Nicklaus says making the left turn at the end of the road still gives him goosebumps.

This image has been burned in my head since I first saw it. Fog filled the narrow passageway through the tall trees and there was a white building at the end. It was glowing. It was Oz.

I didn't get that far on my first trip to town. The guy in the guard shack dropped a verbal iron gate, and Oz disappeared in my rear-view mirror. I wasn't discouraged, though. I knew that whatever was inside would be preserved. It'd always be in there, waiting. Did I ever think, though, that my eventual introduction would be a nine-hole round featuring Nicklaus, Palmer and Player? Come on, it's not 1968.

Up on the final tee box, the young caddie knew what was coming. He told his grandfather, "Please, just put it close." And Nicklaus did, placing the ball just a half-foot from the hole. When the group reached the green, Nicklaus handed the putter to his grandson. In the gallery, Barbara clasped her hands over her mouth. "I'll bet he's shaking," she said of her grandson. "Oh, make it, Jackie."

When the ball disappeared, her knees uncoiled. Her hands excitedly slapped together. "Yeah!" Barbara shouted.

Hadn't we seen this before? Nicklaus sinks birdie putt on final hole. Does anything ever change?

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