Augusta - A frail Arnold Palmer joined fellow golf icons Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus on the first tee Thursday for an emotion-packed and tearful ceremonial start of the 80th Masters.
Hundreds crowded around behind the clubhouse at Augusta National to catch a glimpse of the "Big Three" legends, cheering as Player, 80, outdrove Nicklaus, 76, while Palmer, 86, watched from a front-row seat, ill health preventing him from teeing off as well.
"To be on the tee with Arnold being a part of us, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass," Player said. "But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in respect. It was a very special moment."
"The respect and love they give us is something very special for me," Player said.
Nicklaus, whose duels with Palmer half a century ago became golf lore, wiped a tear from his eye as he went to hit his shot.
"Everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee. Arnold was happy to be on the tee," said Nicklaus, who tried to cajole Palmer into just tapping a ball with a putter.
"He said, 'I'm good.' I said, 'Fine, let's leave it alone.' So I think probably the right thing," Nicklaus said. "Arnold's balance is not good and that's what they were worried about. But I think he was delighted to be out there.
"Both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else."
Exactly 61 years to the day after Palmer hit his first tee shot at the Masters, he was helped to and from the tee area, with Player and Nicklaus each lending an arm to support him as they stood for photos.
"To have longevity has been a special gift," Player said. "We had a very unusual friendship among competitors."
And there was still competition, even over one shot, as Nicklaus waved, smiled and watched.
"Gary won his tournament this year," said Nicklaus. "I hit a pop up."
Many of this year's Masters entrants were among the crowd cheering on the seniors' efforts.
"Rickie Fowler (jokingly) gave me a hard time about it. He says, 'Did you reach the bottom of the hill?' I said, 'Almost.'"
Palmer, a seven-time major champion and four-time Masters winner, began serving as an honorary starter in 2007, joined by 18-time major champion and six-time Masters winner Nicklaus in 2010 and in 2012 by Player, who donned the green jacket three times among his nine major triumphs.
"The respect and love they give us is something very special," Player said of the crowd. "The love that is extended to us wherever we go in the world is most gratifying, that so many people would be on the first tee to see one shot."
Palmer was a champion and personality that sparked television interest in the 1960s and the rise of Nicklaus and Player set the stage for the huge broadcast rights fees and prize money riches enhanced by the success of Tiger Woods at the turn of the century.
"I think television, and sort of having a rivalry between the three of us, captured the golfing public," Nicklaus said. "We were thrown together into a lot of situations."
Now they provide a rare opportunity for children to see a hero from a bygone era.
"Even at my age, I get a big kick out of stuff like that, that these kids years from now, these kids will have the same kick about," Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus was reluctant to settle for the role of honorary starter when he still wanted to challenge Augusta National.
"I really wasn't ready to be a ceremonial golfer yet. It took me awhile to accept my position," Nicklaus said.
"It has become a nice thing that we're being included in and sort of recognizes our accomplishments to the game a little bit and keeps us a little bit relevant to what's going on today."