History LessonApril 7, 2016

Recalling the modest origins of the trio known as the Big 3

AUGUSTA, Ga. – On a cool, sunlit morning at the cathedral of golf, the Big 3 took a curtain call, and you couldn’t help but wonder if there will be another. It was glorious and poignant and bittersweet.

Getty Images

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 07: (L-R) Honorary starters Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player attend the ceremonial tee off to start the first round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus struck ceremonial tee shots Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club to kick off the 80th Masters while the senior member of the long-celebrated trio, fragile and yet resolute Arnold Palmer, could do no more than look on as a spectator from a chair behind the first tee.

The renewal of this tradition, rare in sports, was less about the beginning of another Masters and more about the potential end of arguably the most consequential era in golf. There will never be another Big 3, not like these men, not with their accumulation of major championships and major contributions to their sport. Throwing together three top players today or in the future in the same catchall, referring to them as the “new Big 3,” is a crass misappropriation of the term.

The common misconception is that the Big 3 was simply a marketing collaboration cooked up in the fertile mind of the late Mark McCormack, the founder of the now giant conglomerate International Management Group. But the truth is that their association was much more organic, which is why, once their orchestrated affiliation ceased, their bond remained and grew stronger in the passing decades.

The official start to their entwined careers occurred in an exhibition with Sam Snead in what was Nicklaus’ professional debut on Dec. 30, 1961. The four men played at Country Club of Miami in a made-for-television match held in conjunction with the college football’s Orange Bowl game. There was little pressure as they equally split a $10,000 purse.

“Yep, I hit my first shot as a professional in the water,” Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, recalled, laughing. Player posted a 70 to win it, while Snead had 72 and Nicklaus and Palmer shot 73.

“We were thrown together at a very early time but we genuinely liked each other, we became very good friends, and we tried like hell to beat one another every chance we got,” Player recalls. “Over time we couldn’t help but appreciate the other guys and what we accomplished.”

“We were the ones winning most of the tournaments, and, of course, the first World Series of Golf was played in 1962,” Nicklaus pointed out recently. “Arnold won two of the majors and then Gary and I each won a major. So there we were again, and that got things going.”

But even prior to that it wasn’t difficult to recognize the developing dominance of the three men. Fred Corcoran, who served as the tour’s tournament manager and promoter in the late 1930s and ‘40s, was perhaps the first to talk about them as a unit. On the eve of the epic U.S. Open playoff between Palmer and Nicklaus at Oakmont CC, Corcoran said that golf was on the verge of what he called, “the third great cycle of golf.”

Underwood Archives

Arnold Palmer (L), and Gary Player (C), follow the flight of Jack Nicklaus' tee shot at the Firestone Country Club, Akron, Ohio, 1965. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

“We had the first great cycle of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen,” Corcoran told reporters before Nicklaus’ seminal professional victory. “Then we had the great cycle of Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. And now we have the cycle of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.”

Corcoran – who omitted the “Great Triumvirate” of Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor and James Braid, who combined to win the Open Championship 16 times between 1894 and 1914 – cited the excitement that each man brought to the game, and added of Nicklaus, prophetically, “He’s the most exciting 22-year-old to come into the game since Snead. He has a tremendous game and a tremendous attitude toward the game. He is going to win a lot of tournaments.”

Very soon two of the three would complete the career grand slam – Player in 1965 at the U.S. Open and Nicklaus in ’66 at the Open Championship. And Palmer was still Palmer, whether in victory or defeat.

The Big 3 name was trademarked with the television series Big Three Golf. Debuting in 1964, it featured four rounds at Firestone CC in Akron and four at the new Mauna Kea course on the Big Island of Hawaii. Jack didn’t play nicely; he played extraordinarily and locked up victory after the sixth round, relegating the final two days to a battle for second place.

The following year, the trio squared off in four rounds, two at Firestone and two at Indian Wells. Then came the “Big Three in Britain,” sponsored by the BBC and beginning the day after Nicklaus won the Open Championship at Muirfield, Scotland. The three tied at 219 after rounds at Gleneagles, Carnoustie and St. Andrews, thanks to Palmer missing a short putt for birdie on the 18th at the Old Course. They later held a playoff round at Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico that Palmer won.

The phenomenon of the Big 3 has never waned, and their springtime renewal at Augusta, whether winning the Masters 13 times among them, playing in the Par-3 Contest or hitting the ceremonial first shot, has been a reminder of their unparalleled bond. Their individual achievements resonate, and they are unique in their talents and personalities, and yet they somehow they seem more complete when defined via the long common thread they share.

“They are our three heroes,” said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, considering the impact of the three legends. “They truly represent what is best in our game, what is best in us. To think that this might be our last time to see them together … I don’t even want to go there.”

“To come here today and to be on the tee with Arnold being a part of us, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass,” Player said.

Everything does, even something as enduring as the Big 3. We will never see the likes of such a phenomenon again.