AUGUSTA — One of the slogans for the Masters Tournament is that it’s “a tradition unlike any other.” What gives that credence is the treasured history at Augusta National Golf Club.
That will be on display on Thursday morning in the way that only the Masters can do it. Once again, the first day of the tournament will commence with three legends of the game serving as honorary starters.
At 7:50 a.m., Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus will kick off the 2013 tournament with honorary tee shots off the first tee.
The “Big Three” are representative winners of 13 Masters, including seven consecutive green jackets between 1960-66. Gates will open for patrons at 7:30 a.m.
The custom of having honorary starters began in 1963 with Jock Hutchinson and Fred McLeod performing the duties. Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Ken Venturi and Sam Snead continued the tradition for several years with a gap between 2002-07. That was when Palmer resumed the practice and was joined by Nicklaus in 2010. Player first participated last year.
Another of Augusta National’s treasured traditions is the annual champions dinner. This is where the previous year’s winner selects a special menu to be served to the exclusive gathering of returning former champions.
This year’s champions dinner was held Tuesday evening, and Bubba Watson had the honor of determining what would be served. Unlike previous year’s when reigning champions proudly announce their choices, often representative of their home and roots, Watson’s keeping his menu secret. When asked about it Tuesday, Bubba was keeping mum.
“The champions dinner, no, this might be my one chance to pick the dinner, and I’ve chosen not to speak on it,” Watson said with a sly grin. “Truthfully I told the Masters and Augusta back in November what it was, and I haven’t told anybody since.”
Watson wasn’t just keeping the media in the dark. He didn’t even share the menu with his wife – he thinks.
“I’m not sure if my wife knows what’s on there, or she might have forgot.”
In addition to the honorary starters, the tee times for the rest of the field of Masters Tournament participants was released Tuesday. There are several interesting groupings taking the course Thursday morning. One of the more colorful groups could be the one including Watson, Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter and U.S. Amateur champion Steven Fox. They will tee off at 10:34 a.m.
Directly behind Watson’s threesome will be another marquee group featuring Tiger Woods. Woods recently regained the status as the No. 1 player in the world is playing with Luke Donald, who has also held the top ranking, and Scott Piercy. Their threesome will go off at 10:45 a.m.
Yet another notable threesome includes Australian Jason Day, Rickie Fowler and three-time major champion Padraig Harrington. Day narrowly missed winning the 2011 Masters while playing with Fowler, and they are two of the exciting young stars in golf. They will start at 10:56 a.m. In the afternoon, fan favorite and 1992 Masters winner Fred Couples will be grouped with long-hitting South Carolinian Dustin Johnson and South African Branden Grace. They will begin at 1:08 p.m.
As the top two players in the world, Woods and Rory McIlroy are natural fits to be rivals. The assumed competition has only been fueled by their friendship away from the course and their appearances in commercials for apparel and gear.
But depending on which of those players you ask, you will get different answers about a rivalry. McIlroy tried to evade the notion while Woods was more accepting of the idea.
“I don’t see myself a rival to Tiger or to anyone,” said McIlroy, who reasoned Woods accomplished so much before he joined the professional ranks, it’s unfair to compare. “Tiger has obviously been on tour, for, I don’t know, what, 12 more years than me or something like that. So his record – when you speak of rivals – you tend to put rivals who have had similar success. He’s got 77 PGA Tour events; I’ve got six. He’s got 14 majors; I’ve got two.
“If I saw myself a rival to Tiger, I wouldn’t really be doing him much justice.”
While McIlroy was respectful and reverential, Woods was more pragmatic in his analysis. This isn’t the first time another top player has been offered as his on-course nemesis.
“I think that over the course of my career, I’ve had a few. You know, certainly Rory is this generation,” Woods said. “I’ve had Phil (Mickelson) and Vijay (Singh) and Ernie (Els) and David (Duval) for a number of years, and now Rory’s the leading of this new, younger generation. So yes, definitely.”
Who’s your caddie?
Another unique and fun tradition at Augusta National is the Par-3 Tournament. Unlike the Masters Tournament, there’s a loose atmosphere for the competitors in today’s exhibition, where having fun is much more important than winning. In fact, most players want to avoid winning as no golfer has ever won the Par-3 and the Masters in the same year.
What’s also special about the Par-3 is players can have whomever they like caddying for them, and often have wives or children on the bag. McIlroy confirmed his girlfriend, women’s tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, will don Augusta National’s traditional white caddie coveralls, while there was speculation that Woods’ celebrity athlete girlfriend – skier Lindsey Vonn – might make an appearance. But don’t count on that, as the ultra-private Woods often doesn’t participate in the Par-3 Tournament.
One confirmed caddie is Watson’s young son, Caleb. Kind of.
“He’ll be somewhat caddie for me at the Par-3,” Watson said of the 1-year-old. “I guess we’ll be carrying him, so I guess we’ll be caddying him. Not quite walking yet.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.