MastersApril 10, 2019

Masters 2019: Naturally, Jim Nantz's favorite recurring sports moment happens at Augusta

97-year-old Gene Sarazen of the USA starts the 1999 US Masters at the Augusta National GC in Augusta, Georgia, USA.
Photo by Craig Jones/Allsport__The Squire__ Honorary starter Gene Sarazen with Sam Snead looking on in 1999.

Far and away, the question I'm asked most often is, “What's your favorite sporting event to call?” I can't say I've ever answered the question well, simply because the three biggest events I broadcast for CBS Sports—the Super Bowl, the NCAA Men's Final Four and the Masters—each are incomparable. My stock reply has been to say it's like asking which of my three children I love the most.

It's waffling, I know. But if I could tweak the question to “What is your favorite recurring sports moment?” well, then, the answer becomes easy. My overwhelming choice is the honorary starters ceremony at the Masters. At roughly 8:15 a.m. on Thursday, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will once again remind us why this drama is unique and compelling. This year will mark my 34th year of attendance at the ceremony. My first was in 1986, when Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen were appearing. I've never missed one, despite many a chilly morning.

What sets the ceremony apart? It's not the competition, as the starters no longer play. It's not the rivalries, which have long since been put to rest, replaced by love and friendship. I believe that when these men appear, we're watching our lives pass before us. The emotion includes nostalgia, sentimentality and a full-force realization of how much our heroes mean to us. There's also a sense of mortality—theirs and ours. That they are there performing essentially the same athletic feat they did 50 years earlier is a reminder that in no other sport can this happen.

The participatory aspect treats us to flashes of the quality—pride—that made the honorary starters great in their day. I first saw this in Sam, Byron and Gene. They took the event more seriously than I anticipated. Sam, for instance, used to work on his game in the lead-up to that single tee shot. In February 2002, as his final appearance drew near, he was telling his friends, “I'm in training for the Masters.” Sam passed away a month after that final drive. It was the last ball he ever hit.

Byron, who late in life would never practice, let alone play, always swatted a few drivers in advance, even as it pained his ailing hips. His last year, during a visit with chairman Hootie Johnson and I, Byron told us he was one of the few witnesses to Sarazen's famous double eagle in 1935. There once was a service path that ran between the 15th and 17th holes, and Byron, playing the 17th, found his ball near the road. Sarazen was perhaps only 50 feet away in the 15th fairway, and the two joined in one of those “You ready, or want me to go?” exchanges. The Squire went first, and Byron was treated to a historic event.

Gene prepared well in advance, too. In early spring of 1999, the year of his final honorary starter appearance, I was with him at a Ken Venturi charity fundraiser near their homes in Marco Island, Fla. Gene was 97 and no longer played even casually, but that day he announced he was beginning preparations for his Masters appearance. He went through a stretching routine and then hit a single ball. It was all the energy he could muster. A month later, he arrived in Augusta for the ceremony wearing two gloves to assist his brittle hands. He also had a new graphite-shaft driver, clearly in an effort to get some added distance. When he smashed his tee shot 75 yards through the air with just the hint of a draw, the quality of the roar from the patrons was unlike any cheer I've heard anywhere. It remains the most beautiful golf shot I've ever seen. Like Sam, it was his final shot. Five weeks to the day later, Gene was gone.

These days we're treated to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. It was Jack who provided me with my first on-site Masters thrill when he nearly aced the 16th hole on the way to winning his sixth green jacket in 1986. The call I made from the tower at 16 that afternoon lifted my career, and I'm grateful for that every time Jack hits his ceremonial drive.

As for Gary, I can't watch him without thinking back to his final Masters playing appearance in 2009, when he knelt at the front of the 18th green and pressed his palms together in gratitude for what the Masters has meant to him. It was a moment of reflection and appreciation for Gary, one that's in perfect harmony with the vibe we all feel that Thursday morning in April, when the dew-sweepers come out and treat us to the most moving moment in sports.

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