It isn’t bragging if you can back it up, Muhammad Ali famously said, but even the cocky old prizefighter might have had his tolerance for bombast tested Thursday at Augusta National.
There’s a pre-ordained order to things at the Masters. We hear from competitors on Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday belongs to Augusta National’s chairman, and Thursday—at least the early morning, as play gets underway—is reserved for the honorary starters.
The Masters is celebrated for its immutability, underpinned as it is by tradition. One example is the honorary starters, legends whose ceremonial tee shots get things underway shortly after dawn. They are among the few things that do actually change at the Masters, and not just their names. Starters assume the role in the flush of their autumnal years and, while most everything around them remains the same as the years roll on, they grow stiffer of bearing, shorter off the tee and more fragile of health, though never less impressive in our collective memory.
The rookie on the roster of icons who opened the 86th Masters first came to Augusta National as an amateur competitor at the 34th Masters, in 1970. Tom Watson saw Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod act as starters that year. “It’s a wonderful memory to me,” he said.
Watson, twice a Masters champion, was insistently humble about accepting a richly-deserved honor. “I don’t belong in the same realm as these two players,” he said, gesturing to his left.
To his immediate left sat Jack Nicklaus, the winner of six green jackets and a ceremonial figure since 2010. He and Watson fought some of golf’s most thrilling duels in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They are men comfortable in their accomplishments and ill-disposed toward braggadocio, particularly when speaking in the first person.
Also on hand was Gary Player, a three-time winner here and an honorary starter since 2012. Player is a man of boundless optimism and considerable achievement. In addition to his three Masters victories, he has a pair of PGA Championships, a U.S. Open and three British Opens. The most enduring of those wins was 1959 at Muirfield, but for reasons that did not become clear until the 1960 Open at St. Andrews.
Back then, the Champion Golfer of the Year was responsible for having his name added to the Claret Jug. The R&A assumed that responsibility when Roberto De Vicenzo returned the trophy in ’68 without having had his name engraved, but Player brought it back in ’60 with his name chiseled in lettering considerably larger than any winner before (or since).
That bold personality trait was on full display Thursday morning at Augusta National, as the 86-year-old legend grasped every opportunity to remind us of his every accomplishment, from wins logged to miles flown.
“I remember when I was the first international player to win this great tournament,” he began, as a means of paying tribute to the defending champion, Hideki Matsuyama.
“I’ve been to Japan almost 30 times,” he added. Twice.
“You know, I went to Australia at least 30 times,” he said a little later, before dropping an oft-cited claim whose appeal surely lies in the difficulty of it being disproven: “Having traveled more miles than any human being that’s ever lived, it gives me a great thrill.”
That Player is well-traveled is hardly in dispute, and he is admirably quick with compliments for the nations he has visited. Today, it was the turn of India. “I love India, the intelligence, the technology, the manners, the so humble—the women dress so nicely. I’m so used to seeing women with damn dresses up their bum, and you don’t see anything like that in India,” he said, admitting an aversion to immodest dress among the fairer sex that may help explain the Golf Saudi logo adorning his collar.
Almost every great golfer in history has vowed to quit when they can no longer win, but none do so. That’s partly what makes them great, the belief that there’s one more round in the chamber for a Sunday gunfight in a major. The titanic threesome on the dais at Augusta National all said they knew when it was time to stop competing.
Player played his final Masters in 2009 at the age of 73. “I won’t mention players that played that they were shooting 90. Really embarrassing, “ he said. “I was still scoring pretty well, and I just said, ‘No, that’s it. I can’t win anymore.’ ” That sobering realization came 31 years after his last victory, 29 years after his last top-10 finish, and 11 years after he last made a cut.
A decade in a strictly ceremonial role has not dampened Player’s love of the game, of competing, and of telling folks about it. “If I may boast for a minute,” he said, with no discernible irony, “I’ve beaten my age over 2,000 times in a row. In a row!”
He confessed to being upset after a recent round when he narrowly failed to beat his age by a staggering 18 shots. “I was 6-under par with five holes to go. I could play the next holes in 2-over and beat my age by 18,” he said. “Nobody has ever beaten their age by 18!”
The veterans wrapped up their conversation with the press by musing on prospective winners of the Masters a few days hence, which offered Player one last, subtle opportunity to pat himself on the back. “I’d like to see Rory McIlroy win because I think he is basically the most talented player I’ve seen in ages,” he said earnestly. “And to have another Grand Slam winner I think would be just a big shot in the arm for golf around the world.”
The key word there is “another,” drawing attention as it does to the five men who can claim that most exalted of honors, three of whom are living, and one of whom was speaking. He rose from the podium and made for the clubhouse to meet and greet, a man in full, clad in a green jacket he had earned. Like Ali said, it’s not bragging if you can back it up.
Published at Golfweek.com, April 7, 2022.