For a shot that doesn’t even count in competition, it might be the most nerve-wracking swing a golfer can have: the honorary tee shot to start the Masters Tournament.
With the first tee ringed with thousands of patrons, a “who’s who” of golfers has performed the unique task on Thursday morning of Masters Week. The current lineup is Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
The tradition formally began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod starting the tournament together.
“Leading off the Masters is the greatest honor we can ever have,” Hutchison said in a 1963 interview. “I would rather do this than win a tournament.”
Hutchison continued as an honorary starter through 1973, then quit because of declining health. McLeod carried on the tradition through 1976.
When Masters Chairman Hord Hardin revived the tradition in 1981, he went back to two of the tournament’s earliest winners: Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen.
Nelson had earned his place in tournament lore with his stirring victory in 1937 and his playoff victory against boyhood pal Ben Hogan in 1942.
Sarazen hit the most famous shot in tournament history with his double eagle at the 15th hole in the final round in 1935. He won his only Masters the next day in a 36-hole playoff against Craig Wood.
In 1984, three-time Masters winner Sam Snead joined the festivities. The trio – with Nelson’s classic swing, Snead’s sharp wit and Sarazen’s unique plus-fours – made Thursday’s opening ceremony a must-see event through 1999.
The ceremony went on hiatus from 2003 to 2006. Then club and tournament Chairman Billy Payne persuaded Arnold Palmer to hit the tee shot in 2007, and Nicklaus joined him in 2010. The addition of Player in
2012 brought golf’s Big Three full circle.
Palmer didn't hit a tee shot in 2016, but he did make an appearance on the first tee alongside Nicklaus and Player. The four-time Masters winner died Sept. 25 at the age of 87.
The nine golfers who have served as honorary starters have won a collective 57 majors, including 19 Masters:
Golfer - Majors - Masters - Wins - Years as starter
Jock Hutchison - 2 - 0 - 1963-73
Fred McLeod - 1 - 0 - 1963-76
Byron Nelson - 5 - 2 - 1981-2001 (nonconsecutive)
Gene Sarazen - 7 - 1 - 1981-99
Ken Venturi - 1 - 0 - 1983
Sam Snead - 7 - 3 - 1984-2002
Arnold Palmer - 7 - 4 - 2007-2016
Jack Nicklaus - 18 - 6 - 2010-present
Gary Player - 9 - 3 - 2012-present