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The Next One’s Good

This year’s Masters honorary starters share a unique kinship

March 16, 2022

ALL TOGETHER Watson, Player and Nicklaus have won 35 pro majors combined.

Dom Furore

The best of the Masters traditions begins Thursday morning at about 8 when the honorary starters gather on the first tee. The patrons are still rushing up the hill from the gates, breathless and straining to see golf’s living Mount Rushmore. It reminds me of the Third Stage of Man: The first is Youth, the second is Middle Age and the third is “You’re looking well.” Gary Player, 86, Jack Nicklaus, 82, and Tom Watson, 72, are all looking well on this first full week in April.

My recurring Masters dream goes back to when Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson were the honorary starters, who in those days not only hit the opening tee shot but played out the first hole and then were carted back to the clubhouse for breakfast. In my nocturnal imagination, Byron hit a good drive, then a 4-wood onto the green and made the putt, whereupon he decided he might as well play the second hole, the downhill par 5. His third shot clanged against the flagstick and dropped in the hole for an eagle, and at three-under through two he was off and running. How far he got depended on when I woke up.

If such a thing were to happen in real life, today’s Big Three have the chutzpah to pull it off. They are men of indomitable spirit, vastly different in personality, but sharing that same character trait.

I give you Jack Nicklaus, first among equals. I remember reading in my youth something said about Jack that left an impression on me. In his prime, he liked to wake up on the morning of the last round of a major and look out the window to see the wind blowing, the rain pelting down, the temperature dropping. He knew half the field would give up under those conditions. Half of the rest didn’t know how to play in weather like that. Most of the remaining were mathematically out of contention. That left fewer than a handful of players to beat, and Jack liked his chances. It sums up Nicklaus’ Germanic view of competition—arrive early, take the high ground, prepare better than everyone else.

Mike Ehrmann

Gary Player’s attitude was different, the product of an inner drive and intensity to prove himself, maybe derived from his diminutive size and remote homeland. The ultimate Gary story is the one his late teacher Phil Ritson told of rooming together at a junior tournament in South Africa when Player was 16 years old.

Ritson said he woke up one morning to find Player standing in front of a mirror telling himself, “I’m going to be the greatest golfer in the world. I’m going to be the greatest golfer in the world.” Dozens of times he said it. Just recently I heard Gary tell a similar story about staring in the mirror, slapping himself and demonstrating: “Don’t feel sorry for yourself.” Slap. “You’re going to have bad holes.” Slap. “Take it like a man.” Slap. That’s the essence of Gary, even if you think it’s an act. He’s been doing this act his whole life. As Herbert Warren Wind once observed, “Underneath the fake tinsel lies the real tinsel.”

Tom Watson was a choker who became a champion. He always brought exuberance to high-risk situations—those five-foot downhill putts that he rammed in sometimes ended up six feet past the hole. He knows success and failure and treats them equally as brothers. There was neither a greater high in U.S. Open history than his chip-in on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach, nor a deeper low in the Open Championship than the bogey he took from the edge at Turnberry two months shy of turning 60. He came from behind as Ryder Cup captain to win heroically in 1993—and then lost embarrassingly in 2014. Occasionally unpopular, but never uncertain, he knows no fear. If you want to increase your success rate, Watson likes to say, double your failure rate.

Nicklaus’ confidence, Player’s ambition, Watson’s resilience—no matter the age, these indomitable men are the Masters. And maybe, just maybe, one of them will birdie the first hole, eagle the second and keep going.