Rivals First, Friends Forever

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It was 7:41 a.m. when the man who invented golf as we know bent over to put a tee in the ground. Good Lord, how many million times had Arnold Palmer done that simple thing? As he straightened up, slowly, and in stages, he said, in relief, "Wow," for he is 85 years old and nothing comes easy. Two months ago, he fell. Dislocated his right shoulder. But he came here. To hit one shot, the ceremonial start of another Masters. And the Augusta National chairman, Billy Payne, called him to the stage: "Still the King, always the leader of his Army, Mr. Arnold Palmer."

A low liner, headed left, and Palmer walked away, back to his partners in nostalgia, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and Palmer later said he had just one thought on that tee this morning, 60 years after he first came here, driving down Magnolia Lane with his wife, Winnie, in their pink, two-door Ford, and that thought was a proud old man's: "Don't fan it."

The three of them, Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus, have won 13 Masters, the first in 1958, the last in 1986, and from 1960 to 1966 one of them won it every year. They have won 34 major championships. At the first tee, their names went up on a signboard.  Arnold Palmer 85, Gary Player 79, Jack Nicklaus 75. The numbers were their ages.

Maybe a thousand people gathered around the tee. Some kids came out to watch the immortals. Kids named Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley, Bubba Watson. In all of sports, there is nothing better than this morning at Augusta National. Time does not stand still. It moves, yes, only it moves to take away years. For three moments, for three tee shots, we are in another time, a time of Palmer's ferocity, Nicklaus's power, Player's intensity.

Then, done with the ceremony, the old guys did what old guys do best. They talked. They laughed.  They spoke of good times and bad. As the three friends and erstwhile rivals sat at a dais in an Augusta National press room, a journalist asked Nicklaus if he wondered, in the presence of his elders, what he might be like at 79 or 85.

"He comes to South Africa, and we go down the gold mine. (Player's father once worked in the country's gold mines.) We go into a room the equivalent of this size, and there must be a billion dollars' worth of gold in there, and they bring out one of the gold bars that we watched them pouring. And the man puts it on the table with two hands, and he says, about 20 of us there, he says, 'Anybody that can pick this up can have it.'"

Pick it up with one hand, that was.

"Arnie says, 'Ask him if I can try.'"

Naturally, Palmer picked up the bar of gold as if it were a bar of Palmolive. When the gold miner reneged on the deal, Palmer suggested Player's famous thriftiness might have been behind the back-out decision. And on this morning when old men did old-man trash-talk, Palmer looked at Player and said, "You wouldn't give a duck a drink if you owned Lake Okeechobee."

Oh, they loved their 1-irons, these old guys did. Nicklaus, if he had to pick the best shot he ever hit, "all three of them were 1-irons. That's how much I like the golf club." Palmer: "I took it to the bathroom with me."

Did someone mention 1962? Player was two shots up on Palmer with three holes to play. He had a 12-footer for birdie at the 16th while Palmer was off the green, miles away, three-putt territory. "And he hit this putt," Player said, "coming down there, around the bend, down like this and hit the flag and went in." Then, at the 17th, Palmer's tee shot rattled around in Ike's Tree until it fell where "he then takes a 5-iron and . . ."

"It was a 4-iron, " Palmer said.

"I'm trying to make you feel better," Player said.

Anyway, Palmer made birdie there, too, and, the next day, defeated Player and Dow Finsterwald in an 18-hole playoff.

"Just before I die," Player said, "I'll say, 'Aarrgh, grrr, Arnold, you SOB.'"

The three shared the 36-hole lead exactly 50 years ago. "I remember it," Player said. "The wrong man won." Palmer: "I don't remember it." Nicklaus, "I remember what the third round was." And why wouldn't he? In that third round, en route to a tournament scoring record and a nine-stroke victory, Nicklaus shot 64.

Nicklaus also remembered two famous shots. "I remember a chip by Watson and a chip by Trevino," and old men in the press room laughed because, they, too, remembered Nicklaus losing the 1972 British Open when Lee Trevino, seemingly beaten, chipped in for a round-saving bogey at the 71st, and losing the 1982 U.S. Open on Tom Watson's miracle from the weeds, again at the 71st.

Still, for all that, Player said more was at work than competition. "You can have love for a woman, and you can have love for a friend." He looked down the dais at Nicklaus and Palmer, the three of them together again, and when your aggregate age is 239, who knows how many more times this will happen before the alternative arrives, and he said, "I think this is what we've had for each other."

And when it came time to leave, the oldest man reached out to the youngest, taking hold of his left arm, and Arnold Palmer said to Jack Nicklaus, "Lead me."