Big Three turn back clock

Posted: Friday, April 07, 2000

The announcer at the ninth green didn't stand a chance.

Not with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player making up a threesome for the first time in Masters Tournament history.

He had rattled off the accomplishments of Player and was about to start on Palmer when the gallery rose to give golf's Big Three a standing ovation.

Thousands of spectators followed the featured group of Thursday's opening round, straining to get a glimpse of the men who have 13 Masters victories to their credit. The trio, who also have an assortment of U.S. opens, British opens, PGA championships and countless other titles, received warm applause on every hole.

They didn't disappoint their adoring fans, with Nicklaus shooting a 2-over 74 to lead the way. After 15 straight pars, short par putts wouldn't drop for Nicklaus on the 16th and 17th holes.

Player had a steady round of 76, while Palmer had bookend nines of 39 for a 78.

``I think everybody enjoyed it, except for maybe Gary, Jack and myself,'' Palmer said after the round. ``I didn't particularly like my score.''

Nicklaus was so miffed with his putting that he immediately went to the putting green to work on his stroke. Later, he went to the driving range to hit practice balls.

``I shot 74, and I wasn't very happy with that,'' Nicklaus said. ``It's the best round of golf I've played here in years and I didn't get very much out of it. I had a couple of opportunities, but I let all the birdies get away.''

Player said it was ``nice to be within one shot of Tiger,'' referring to Woods' score of 75.

``Standing on the first tee was a very special moment,'' Player said. ``I think we all played a little better than we scored.''

Although Nicklaus, Palmer and Player frequently are paired together for Senior PGA Tour and made-for-television events, Thursday's gathering was a first at the Masters. A larger-than-usual field and the use of threesomes gave tournament officials the opportunity to group the legendary trio. The three tee off today at 10:12 a.m.

Shortly after 1 p.m., a full 20 minutes before the threesome was scheduled to tee off Thursday, there was hardly enough room to move in the area surrounding the first tee. TV cameras were on hand to capture the moment as the Big Three made their way from the practice putting green to the first hole amid a loud, sustained ovation.

The three players were all smiles and handshakes as they prepared to tee off, even posing for a group picture. They would later stand on Hogan Bridge together as they approached the par-3 12th green.

Finally, 1:23 p.m. arrived, and the announcer signaled for the gallery's silence.

``Fore please, Jack Nicklaus,'' he said.

A crisp drive down the left center of the fairway.

``Fore please, Arnold Palmer now driving.''

A stinger toward the corner of the bunker. The ball failed to draw, winding up in the sand.

``Fore please, Gary Player now driving.''

A slice into the right trees.

How they hit it really didn't matter, though. For the gallery, the clock had been turned back to the early 1960s, and golf's Big Three was on the prowl again.

Age has taken its toll. Palmer, 70, wears a hearing aid. The 60-year-old Nicklaus had hip-replacement surgery last year, forcing him to miss his first Masters in 40 years. And Player, still a physical specimen at 64, is two years removed from his last Senior Tour victory.

``That was a thrill, huh?'' a spectator said after the Big Three had teed off on the first hole.

More than five hours after they had teed off, the trio arrived at the 18th hole. The red-coated announcer fared a little bit better than his counterpart at the ninth hole.

He had gone through Player, Nicklaus and was almost done with Palmer when a ball bounced on the green, scaring the flag stick before stopping 20 feet away on the back fringe. It was Nicklaus.

As the three approached the green, the gallery gave them a standing ovation. Minutes later, another eruption from the crowd as the three finished their rounds.

``I'd have to say here today,'' Nicklaus said of his favorite memory of the Big Three. ``Because of the significance of this place, and what the three of us have accomplished here.''

``I think everybody enjoyed it, except for maybe Gary, Jack and myself. I didn't particularly like my score.''- Arnold Palmer

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