At 7:40 this morning, legends Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player kicked off the 78th Masters by striking the ceremonial opening tee shots.
All three found the first fairway. Nicklaus was the longest, edging Player by a yard.
While having honorary starters serve as a great Masters tradition, the tournament hasn't had starters every year. In all, nine golfers have been honorary starters at the Masters. Collectively, they have won 57 majors, including 19 Masters Tournaments. Here they are, along with the years they served the honorary starter role:
- Jock Hutchison, 1963-73
- Fred McLeod, 1963-76
- Gene Sarazen, 1981-99
- Byron Nelson, 1981-82 and 1984-2001
- Ken Venturi, 1983
- Sam Snead, 1984-2002
- Arnold Palmer, 2007-
- Jack Nicklaus, 2010-
- Gary Player, 2012-
The first two honorary starters -- Hutchison and McLeod -- earned the role as winners at Augusta National... but not in the Masters. You see, Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones helped organize the Senior PGA Championship and the first two were played at Augusta National in 1937 and 1938.
Venturi never won at Augusta National, but did record the best-ever finish by an amateur in 1956, when he finished alone in second place, one shot behind winner Jack Burke Jr. Venturi had a four-shot lead through 54 holes that year and was eight better than Burke going into the final round before Burke stormed back and Venturi faded on the final day.
Other than Hutchison, McLeod and Venturi, all other honorary starters have been Masters champions.
There is a noticeable gap from 2003-2006 when there were no starters, and for good reason. After the deaths of Snead (2002) and Sarazen (1999), Nelson decided he'd rather not partake.
A recent story by Augusta Chronicle Sports Editor John Boyette suggests that the honorary starter may have been around before 1963:
The Masters media guide says the honorary starter tradition began in 1963. Newspaper clippings, however, indicate the tradition started in the 1950s.
“As has been the tradition for years, two grand old champions will start the parade Thursday as the opening twosome,” The Augusta Chronicle reported in 1963.
The earliest records of Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod teeing off together in the first pairing of the tournament came in 1954. Through 1962, the two men would traditionally play nine or 18 holes and then withdraw from the tournament.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the words “honorary starter” were listed next to their names in the list of tee times.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.