AUGUSTA ­— After a brief welcome and introduction, Masters Chairman Billy Payne was set to begin Thursday's first round of the 78th edition of the tournament.


As he has done since 2007, he turned to Arnold Palmer to get the event underway.


“Arnold, the tee is yours,” he said, followed by a roughly 150-yard tee shot in the fairway from the four-time Masters champion.


Next came three-time champion Gary Player, whom Payne described as a “great global ambassador” for the game of golf.


The third member of the group was six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus, the only golfer with that many wins and the only person to win the tournament at least once in three straight decades.


“His accomplishments remain unmatched, even to this day at Augusta National,” Payne said.


Player and Nicklaus each hit tee shots close to the center of the fairway, with Nicklaus' ball rolling just past Player's, to the cheers of the crowd surrounding the tee box.


“It's not bad when you think he used to outdrive me by 50 (yards),” Player later joked about the pair of drives that went about 225 yards.


This marks the eighth time that Palmer, who will turn 85 in September, has started the tournament with a ceremonial tee shot. The 74-year-old Nicklaus joined him in 2010, and Player, now 78, joined the group in 2012.


It's not the only joint venture the trio has been on since their competitive playing days came to an end. They've taken part in various efforts to grow the game of golf across the world.


Once rivals on the course, they've developed a friendship in their golden years.


“It's been a special journey, and I don't think there's ever been – if I may be so forward, not boastful, but factual – that three athletes have ever in the history of any sports traveled together, been together so much across the world, not just in the United States ... and had an association like we've had,” Player said.


“It just doesn't exist anymore and it never has, and I don't think it ever will again.”


While the time for the three golfers to compete in The Masters has passed them by, the competitive fire did not go with it. Nicklaus and Player, in particular, still joke about who hit the ball farther off the tee.


“Obviously, it was such a great thrill every time we teed it up to actually play for real, and I think we'd all love to wind the clock back a few years and play,” Nicklaus said. “Because it's such a great tournament, a great thrill to stand on the first tee, have the butterflies and get that first tee shot over with and get going.”


This time, he said there were no butterflies, no special preparations for one of the most watched tee shots of the weekend.


The trio is often credited for their role in growing not just the game of golf, but the prestige of The Masters itself. Each indicated they took pride in knowing their accomplishments were part of a tournament with such global impact.


“But I think all of us feel that it's been a big part of our lives ... but Augusta National thinks we have been a big part of The Masters Tournament,” Nicklaus said. “We are very proud of that.”


Even that wasn't too serious of a topic to elicit a ribbing between the legends. Nicklaus and Player took the opportunity to remind Palmer that he started playing The Masters before they did, and he would be better suited to answer the question. He played his first Masters in 1955, two years before Player and four before Nicklaus.


“Yes, and I hope I'm here a long time after you,” he said.


The topic of how long the three golfers will continue their roles as honorary starters has been a popular one recently. With Palmer's health in decline, he isn't able to play as much golf as he'd like, according to Nicklaus, which makes the chance to hit a tee shot at an elite course special for the eldest member of the group.


“Arnold gets probably as big a kick out of that as anything he does,” Nicklaus said.


As for the six-time champion, he was never as attached to the notion of one day being part of the official start of the tournament each year.


“I think it's a nice honor,” he said. “To get up at 7 in the morning and hit a ball off the first tee is not something I wanted to do all my life.”


None of the three would commit to a firm time frame for their tenure as honorary starters, but Palmer confirmed that he wasn't in a hurry to leave.


“I suppose as long as they ask me to do it,” he said.


The others seemed content to continue traveling as a unit. In their post-competitive travels, they've visited each other's homes – even Player's ranch in South Africa.


For now, Nicklaus let Palmer's commitment to the role speak for his own.


“There's your answer,” he said.


Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University. Follow him on Twitter @ASJTimm.