By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the first shots at Augusta National as honorary starters for the 82nd U.S. Masters which began on Thursday and showed their old competitive fire still burned bright.
Player, 82, struck his tee shot to the left center of the fairway to win bragging rights as Nicklaus followed just short of the South African in the left rough.
“I said to Jack today, ‘Don’t worry. I out-drive you now, but you out-drove me for 50 damn years’,” Player told reporters.
The pairing of the two former lions of the game drew a packed audience around the first tee in chilly early morning air and fans lined both sides of the fairway.
The ceremonial start was marked by a rookie error from new Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, who introduced Nicklaus and Player as winners of 10 Green Jackets between them. Nicklaus, 78, won a record six while Player claimed three.
“I looked over at Gary and said, ‘did you win four? I won three, he said. I said, I didn’t win seven’,” Nicklaus said.
“So you could tell what that tee shot meant today. (Player) Got another Green Jacket for it.”
Nicklaus was still in the glow of Wednesday’s rousing hole-in-one made by his 15-year-old grandson, GT Nicklaus Jr., who caddied for the Golden Bear and was rewarded with a swing from the ninth tee on their last hole of Wednesday’s Par-3 Contest.
GT, one of Nicklaus’s 22 grandchildren, made a hole-in-hole that set off a wild celebration and brought tears to the eyes of his grand-dad, who said it ranked as his top golf moment.
“I didn’t want to be disrespectful because six Green Jackets is pretty good, but that’s about yourself,” explained Nicklaus, winner of a record 18 major championships.
“But when something happens with your children or your grandchildren, that’s far more special to you. And so yesterday I said was the greatest day I’ve had at Augusta National, and it was just absolutely fantastic. I loved it.”
Player cherished the moment too.
“To have your grandson with you there ‑ and Jack was in tears, and of course he got us all choked up as well,” Player said.
GT’s first ace ever crowned a glorious tour of the Par-3 course for Nicklaus, Player and 68-year-old Tom Watson, who won the competition with a six-under total of 21 to surpass Sam Snead as oldest winner of the event first staged in 1960.
Nicklaus was four under and Player was two under par on the picturesque course.
“I never like to say never, but I wonder whether that will ever happen again, a 72-year-old, a 68-year-old and an 82-year-old, 12‑under par and all in the top-10 on the scoreboard against these young guys,” Player said.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)