Every tradition – even those unlike any other – starts some time, some place.
Fred McLeod and Jock Hutchison could not possibly have known that they were pioneering of one of The Masters’ most beloved customs when they hit the first shots at Augusta National in 1963.
In the pantheon of human endeavour, there is little chance of these humble drives being remembered with the same slack-jawed wonder as, say, Hillary and Norgay scaling Everest, nor Armstrong and Aldrin moseying as if through molasses on the surface of the moon.
Yet in its own way, in a sport besotted with its own reflection and in a tournament obsessive about pomp and ceremony, the Scots-born pair driving down ‘Tea Olive’ has become a significant stitch in the fabric of both golf and The Masters.
Doesn't every comfort blanket start with a single, simple thread?
These days, thousands gather in the early-dawn at Augusta National on the first Thursday of April every year to observe and be part of the ‘Honorary Starters’ ceremony.
At precisely 8.15am, Jack Nicklaus – a winner of the Green Jacket a record six times – is introduced to the crowd by club chairman Fred Ridley before firing a drive down the fairway. The swing is neither as fluid nor as powerful as it once was but nobody cares. This has nothing to do with form and everything to do with respect. If sentimentality has a sweetspot, this is a rare moment that connects flush out of the middle.
Gary Player, a three-time champion and the first non-American to win the tournament, follows. Invariably, he outdrives Jack, which he celebrates with the kind of high-kicking gusto you seldom see from a man of 84.
With that, the first men’s major championship of the year is underway and, as Nicklaus and Player retreat to the media centre where they hold court for the next hour or so, the serious business of trying to join them at the following year’s Champions Dinner unfolds in earnest.
As conventions go, it’s both harmless and perfectly pitched. A fuzzy-centred fusion of past and present that even the most cynical secretly enjoy. In a tournament where the prize is a jacket, the Honorary Starter ceremony has the warm, familiar feel of a pair of well-worn slippers.
Appropriately, Nicklaus won the first of his six Masters titles in the year this tradition began. Also that year, Horton Smith, the winner of the first and third Masters, passed away.
It’s not quite clear why Smith wasn’t given the honour of hitting the first shot in 1963. Despite being in the final few months of his long-standing battle with Hodgkin’s disease – a brave fight that had cost him a lung six years prior – he still played that year.
Instead, the privilege fell to McLeod and Hutchison, a pair of expatriated Scots.
Born in North Berwick in April 1882, McLeod joined the town’s Bass Rock Golf Club aged seventeen. He enjoyed a considerable amount of success and, in 1903, followed the lead of many of his countrymen by emigrating to the US to try to establish himself as a professional.
Within weeks of his arrival, he entered his first major, the US Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. He finished in a tie for 26th as another North Berwick man, Willie Anderson, won for the second time. He beat Musselburgh-born David Brown in a playoff, as Scottish golfers occupied the entire top-ten.
Five years after he made his debut, it was McLeod’s turn to have his name engraved on the US Open trophy. He defeated Willie Smith in a play-off at Myopia Hunt in Massachusetts, setting a peculiar record in the process. At only five feet four inches tall and tipping the scales at just seven stone ten pounds at the end of the tournament, he was (and remains) the smallest man ever to claim the title.
His diminutive stature, allied to his killer instinct on the course, earned him the nickname ‘The Wasp’. He justified the moniker time and again, winning the 1909 and 1920 North and South Opens at Pinehurst, the 1912 Shawnee Open, the 1924 St Petersburg Open and the 1927 Maryland Open. In 1919, he finished runner up to Jim Barnes in the US PGA Championship.
His contribution to the game was recognised with an invitation from the great Bobby Jones to play in the first edition of The Masters in 1934. He finished in a tie for 50th.
The following year, McLeod was joined at Augusta by Jock Hutchison.
Born in St Andrews in 1884, Hutchison was another of the Scottish contingent to head across the Atlantic in search of golfing fame and fortune in the early 1900s. Having originally settled in Pittsburgh at the Allegheny Country Club, he moved on to Glen View Club in the Village of Golf, Illinois, in 1918. He became a PGA professional the following year and, the year after that, became a US citizen.
That was only the second most significant thing to happen to Hutchison in 1920. With three runner-up finishes already to his name, he finally won his first major, narrowly defeating James Douglas Elder in the final of the US PGA Championship at the Flossmoor Country Club, just outside Chicago.
Ten months later, he returned to St Andrews where he became the first US-based golfer to win golf’s oldest professional tournament.
‘Jovial Jock’ lived up to his reputation on his return to the US, singing the words to ‘Sailing, Sailing’ by Godfrey Marks as he led a group of eight Americans off the Carmania ocean liner whilst cradling the Claret Jug in his arms.
Together with Walter Hagen and Jim Barnes, Hutchison formed ‘The American Triumvirate’, so-called because of their dominance of the game Stateside during the 1910s and 1920s.
Like McLeod, he found the going tough in The Masters, finishing in a tie for 51st on his debut in 1935. However, when Augusta National staged the inaugural PGA Seniors' Championship in 1937, it was he who won. The following year, McLeod took the title.
In 1954, in honour of their respective contributions to the game, Augusta National invited the Scots-born duo to play a ‘ceremonial’ round at the start of The Masters before officially withdrawing from the tournament. They continued to do this through the 1962 edition - playing sometimes 18, sometimes nine - before, in 1963, they were given a new, more formal role.
“As has been the tradition for years, two grand old champions will start the parade Thursday as the opening twosome,” reported the Augusta Chronicle in 1963. The following year, the words ‘Honorary Starter’ were listed next to each of their names in the list of tee times.
“Leading off the Masters is the greatest honour we can ever have,” said Hutchison in a 1963 interview. “I would rather do this than win a tournament.”
He continued in the role until 1973, when his deteriorating health forced him to stand down. McLeod pressed on alone for the next three years, hitting the ceremonial opening drive for the final time on April 8, 1976, at the age of 93. He died precisely a month later.
Hutchison passed away in September 1977.
The honorary starter tradition was subsequently abandoned for a few years until its revival in 1981. Since then, seven different greats of the game have got the tournament underway: Byron Nelson (1981-2001); Gene Sarazen (1981-1999); Ken Venturi (1983); Sam Snead (1984-2002); Arnold Palmer (2007-2016); Jack Nicklaus (2010 to present); and Gary Player (2012 to present).
Tom Watson, Sir Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson – all can presumably look forward to the day that they, too, are called upon to officially begin the most fascinating golf tournament on the planet.
For all that has gone before, it rather feels – appropriately enough – as though this particular tradition is just getting started.