Nicklaus, Player, Watson recall past Masters glory as 2022 tournament kicks off

AUGUSTA, Ga. — There is a timelessness to Augusta National, a sense that whether you visit the grounds in 1962, 1982 or 2022, everything will feel familiar. You know the route of the hills, you know the way the clubhouse oak peeks out, you know how each hole goes up and down. In that way, it’s like being at home.

Also like a home, Augusta National sees its visitors age with each passing year. Every year in Augusta is someone’s first, and every year is someone’s last, too. There is a circularity to the Masters that is both uplifting and melancholy, and nowhere is that more evident than in the brief window of time between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.

The par 3 contest returned on Wednesday and although rains stopped the festivities early, players and sponsors had plenty of time to enjoy what has become one of the purest traditions of the Masters: the sons of the players frolicking in miniature caddy suits on the greens of the par 3 course. They’re the future of Augusta National, even if they’re too young to know it.

At the other end of the generational spectrum comes another tradition a few hours later: the traditional ceremonial tee shot to start the Masters. Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and newcomer Tom Watson took to a rainy and misty first tee shortly after 8:00am on Thursday morning to once again offer a nostalgic look at a bygone era.

Gary Player, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus (from left) kick off Masters 2022. (Andrés Redington/Getty Images)MOREHIDE

Gary Player, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus (from left) kick off Masters 2022. (Andrés Redington/Getty Images)MOREHIDE

Nicklaus and Player are moving much slower now even than when they started making these shots a decade ago. Back then, Arnold Palmer joined them, first matching them on impulse for impulse, then slowly and inexorably moving away. In 2016, the last year of his life, Palmer just sat back and watched his two legendary teammates swing their clubs. The following year, Palmer’s green jacket was draped over a chair, a silent reminder that everything ends one day.

Lee Elder, the first black man to play the Masters, was given the honor of joining the starting contingent in 2021. Too ill to swing the club, he too could only sit and watch; a few months later, he too would pass away.

So now it’s Watson’s turn. Winner of two green jackets and eight majors overall, Watson is a decade younger than his fellow starters. His tee shot, unsurprisingly, is also stronger than the others, ending Player’s decade-long reign as the titular honorary long-drive champion. At the post-shoot press conference, his Texas drawl was sharper and richer than Nicklaus’s Ohio drawl or Player’s South African bite.

For golf fans of a certain age, those press conferences have become the equivalent of flipping through a well-read family album. The men know their roles and bring up their family lines: the player talks about the need for gratitude and the demands of “young people today” to show a little more respect for themselves and the game; Nicklaus sits back and shakes off all the adulation with a wry wit that belies the precision with which he dissected the world of golf back in the day. Every year, it’s like listening to your grandparents tell stories of the good old days; Who really cares if they have to ask you to repeat a question or start telling a story you’ve already heard a dozen times? It is a joy to be in your presence once again.

Using words like “honoured” and “honoured,” Watson told the story of how Masters chairman Fred Ridley offered him the opportunity to join Nicklaus and Player, two of the only men whose achievements surpass Watson’s. All three men displayed an impressive knowledge of the current players, discussing Cam Smith’s glorious mullet and the prospects of young players like Anirban Lahiri. Watson recounted how, at Tuesday night’s dinner of champions, a room full of Masters winners sat rapt as Nicklaus described the second nine of his 1986 victory.

“I was looking around the table, the guys at the table were alone…” he mimicked someone with their mouths open in disbelief. “They wanted to hear, because everyone at that table had been in that position before, winning the tournament, and … they wanted to hear the inside, what Jack was thinking as he played the back nine.”

The only time the real world intruded on the collegiate trip down memory lane came in the form of a question about Phil Mickelson absent from Augusta National this week following Saudi golf debacle. Player, as is his style, mounted a defense of Mickelson that focused less on what he said and more on the concept of forgiveness as a whole.

“We live in a time where we are such a critical society, a litigious society, a critical society, where people are crucified,” he said. “And you make a mistake, that every single one of you in this room has made a fucking mistake. We all have. And he said he’s sorry. But even the Lord God will forgive you your iniquities if you ask him for forgiveness.”

Nicklaus didn’t say anything at all. Watson, who got into an ugly public fight with Mickelson after the 2014 Ryder Cup, simply smiled and pretended to lock his lips.

After about 45 minutes of great talk, the press conference ended. The legends walked out of the interview room and, soon enough, off the property of Augusta National. Next year, hopefully, they’ll be back, and Watson, who has been extended a lifetime offer to play the ceremonial shot, will be among them, he hopes.

“God willing, and the stream does not rise,” Watson said with a smile. To which everyone who visits Augusta National can only reply, Amen.


Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at [email protected].

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