The Masters: 11 Green Jackets and the rigidity of time

Watson Nicklaus Player

This is a story about time.

Its irrepressibility. Its irresistibility. Its inevitability.

And since it is precious, without any further ado, let’s begin.

5.00am

The alarm, as unwelcome as ever, goes off. The lights, as blinding as ever, go on. Depending on your perspective, it’s either the middle of the night or the opening morning of the 86th Masters Tournament.

5.12am

The phone pings as the rain continues to pepper the mote room window. There’s an email from the Communications Director at Augusta National. “Attached is an approved news bulletin for distribution.” The attached file has the name “Thursday Gate Opening News Bulletin”.

It contains information of a weather-enforced 30-minute delay to the start of the tournament. The Honorary Starters Ceremony will now take place at 8.15am, followed by the first tee time at 8.30am.

Suddenly, there is time to kill.

8.10am

The rain has throttled back, reducing to a light, humid smirr. To an appreciative soundtrack of warm applause, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson make the short walk from the clubhouse to the first tee.

8.15am

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley welcomes the distinguished trio.

“Today,” he begins, “I have the honour of introducing three legendary champions. Together, they have won a combined 11 Green Jackets and made an incredible 140 Masters appearances across six decades. This morning, we add another milestone to their celebrated history at Augusta National.”

Player, 86, is first to tee off. As he comes forward, Watson - making his inaugural appearance as an Honorary Starter this year - quips, “Is he going to do a push-up?”

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“I did them when you were asleep this morning,” replies the South African to the delight of the crowd.

Thirty seconds or so later, he rips a drive down the first fairway, which he follows with a high-kick. He is maybe the youngest 86-year-old on the planet.

Nicklaus, 82, is next to hit. He doesn’t move as freely as Player. There’s an unmistakable frailty about him now.

“Hope I can do this without falling over,” he jokes as he bends to put the tee in the ground. He pushes his drive a little but most men a fraction of his age would settle for that. Heck, most would settle for making contact.

Finally, it is the turn of Watson, the youngster of the group at 72. Before he hits, he offers some spontaneous words of gratitude for the opportunity to be part of the occasion. “I’ve watched this ceremony many times in the past with Arnie, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson” he says, “and to be a part of this thing I am truly humbled.”

As he steps in to the ball, he suddenly backs off.

“How far did you hit it, Gary?”

“Well, I could hear it land, so not very far.”

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Watson stripes it. As he watches his ball sail through the heavy air, his constant smile widens. He rejoins to Player and Nicklaus at the back of the tee and the three men put their arms around one another.

Three men.

If ever there was a euphemism.

Reducing Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson to ‘three men’ feels shamefully insufficient. To be in the company of icons of not just this sport but sport generally - men who have played in a combined 459 major championships, winning 35 - is rare. To be in their company under these circumstances, even more so.

These are precious, pinch-me moments.

They are on the golf course for less than ten minutes.

8.45am

Wearing their Green Jackets, Player, Nicklaus and Watson arrive in the interview room, contained within the bowels of the media building.

It is one of The Masters’ great traditions that the honorary starters sit down with the press after getting the tournament under way.

It is a customarily lively affair and this one is no different.

Watson has the room in stitches when, from nowhere, he produces an uncannily accurate impersonation of Nicklaus. Player provides the most newsworthy lines with a robust defence of Phil Mickelson and a withering critique of Tiger Woods’ coaches.

Nicklaus? Nicklaus watches it all unfold with a gentle, quiet authority, contributing here and there.

The trio laugh when they realise that they all beat their age for the first time at 64.

The prevailing theme is dignity.

“I felt honoured to be out there,” says Watson. “When Chairman Ridley called my office and said, ‘We'd like to speak with Tom at 10:00 in the morning on Monday morning’, I was kind of expecting that he might ask me to be an Honorary Starter, but I was overjoyed and actually humbled because the way I look at these old goats right here and I can't carry their shoes. I don't kind of belong in the same realm as these two players here.”

Player adds: “I get quite choked when I get on that tee in the morning. I'm not embarrassed to say that. The enthusiasm is one of the great essences of life, and the enthusiasm there, you can't compare it to anywhere.

“The word that comes to me, it's very simple, is gratitude. To be here at 86 years of age, on my 65th occasion, and still be teeing off. We can't take things for granted. There is a great sense of entitlement that exists on the planet today, and we're not entitled to a damn thing.”

“I personally just felt lucky to be out there, period,” says Nicklaus. “I think these two know what I'm talking about.”

Honorary Starters

9.25am

The press conference ends. Player, Nicklaus and Watson depart.

A thought occurs. A sombre, somewhat macabre thought.

How many more times will we see them here?

Nicklaus, we are told, won’t play in the Par-3 Contest again. He's done with that. How many more shots will we get to see him hit at Augusta National, a course he has dominated like no other. Ten? Five? Perhaps today was the last. Who can know but Father Time, the only undefeated golfer there has ever been.

As golfers, we measure our ability by numbers: our scores, driving distance, ball speed, smash factor, more.

As humans, we measure our existence by time: seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, more.

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Both are rooted in futility.

Golf, at its heart, is an endless, impossible pursuit of perfection. No matter how good we get, we can always get better.

And time? Time is the only thing we all want more of but can never, ever have. It stops for no-one, continuing to tick along with maddening, uncompromising consistency.

Moments. Moments are what matter.

That’s what makes the Honorary Starter ceremony so special, so enduring.

It is easy to sneer at the occasion, to roll your eyes and lament the pomp and schmaltz.

A better alternative is to submit to it. To accept it for what it is. To celebrate these ‘three men’ for the great champions that they are. To enjoy the moment. To savour traditions like no other.

They are few and far between.

They are time-honoured.

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