They shuffled to the tee using their golf clubs as canes, and I remember thinking, “I better pay attention. These old guys must be important.”
It was some time in the early 70s -- memory fades and time is now measured in ever-larger chunks -- but I remember Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod slowly inching their way to a tee box in Augusta that no longer exists on a hole that neither would now recognize. One of them wore a round touring cap and tie beneath a cardigan sweater like Gatsby.
I knew little about either, but I learned. Long before the Internet, I asked the older patrons about the men who would only hit one shot apiece that morning. They told me about Hutchison’s 1920 PGA Championship victory and 1921 Open Championship win at St. Andrews, the town in which he was raised. I learned that Jock won the inaugural PGA Seniors Championship at Augusta National in 1937, which surprised me, not that Hutchison had won but that the National had hosted an event other than the Masters. And I learned that McLeod had won the 1908 U.S. Open at Myopia Hunt Club in Boston, a club that would later become one of my favorites.
I remember the shots as remarkably unremarkable, slow-motion pecks down the middle, but they received raucous applause anyway. “It’s tradition,” my father told me at the time as a way to get me to stop asking questions. But I learned to appreciate that answer more and more as so many of the traditions of youth slipped away.
The importance of seeing those shots didn’t occur to me until after Hutchison and McLeod were gone. That was why I took special care to be present whenever Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead struck their ceremonial first shots at the Masters, and I cherished every conversation I had with them, even the ones that weren’t very interesting.
Christmas reminds us of the comfort found in tradition. Families gather, gifts are exchanged, meals cooked and eaten, songs sung and merriment made. As we take time to reflect on the year behind us and look forward to 2013, it is also nice to remember the rituals in our game and the important bond they forge among us.
On Tuesday, Jack Nicklaus spoke via telephone to a small group of reporters where he talked about his upcoming anniversary in Augusta. Next April it will have been 50 years since Jack donned his first green jacket. He had won the U.S. Open the summer before and that spring he became the youngest Masters winner in history, a record that would stand for 35 years until Tiger came along in 1997.
Jack remembers his first Masters victory with the same clinical detachment he recalls most things in his professional life. But he did bring a smile to many when he said that expects to be the honorary starter again next year, keeping that tradition alive by once more joining Arnold Palmer and Gary Player on the first tee Thursday morning.
“It's not my call,” Jack said when asked if he would continue to be the honorary starter. “But I would assume we'd probably do that. And how long we do it? I don't know. It's not my call. I mean, it's the Chairman's call. We'll just go from there, on a year-to-year basis and see what happens.”
Billy Payne is a smart guy. He will not be the chairman who discontinues this one. Jack, Arnold and Gary can hit those first tee shots for as long as they wish.
There is a sense that many sporting traditions are already past their primes. In the days of iPhones and 3D video games, who collects baseball cards anymore? How many NFL players speak at high school banquets? And when was the last time you saw an NBA “old-timers” game?
Golf preserves its heritage and traditions better than most, but there are exceptions. We lost Q-School and Disney this year. But one old practice appears to be staying put. Augusta National and the Masters will continue to honor the game’s history by asking three of its most lasting legends to go out first.
And when they walk to that tee early next April 11, there will likely be a child who sees old men shuffling and asks, “Who are these guys, and what did they do?”
It will rest upon us to answer, and in so doing keep the traditions of the game alive.