A history of Masters honorary starters and ceremonial first tee shots

A history of Masters honorary starters and ceremonial first tee shots


At the 2024 Masters, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player will serve as honorary starters, beginning the tournament with ceremonial first tee shots on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club.

In 2017, Nicklaus and Player hit their ceremonial tee shots for the first time without the presence of Arnold Palmer on the first tee. Palmer, who won four Masters titles (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964), began as an honorary starter in 2007. He was on the first tee in 2016, but he did not hit a ceremonial first tee shot.

The history of the Masters honorary starters and the ceremonial first tee shot starts years before the Big Three of Palmer, Nicklaus and Player got together on the first tee at Augusta National.

History of the Masters honorary starters

The tradition of the Masters honorary starter began formally in 1963 when Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod did the honors. Hutchison won the 1920 PGA Championship and the 1921 British Open, becoming the first American to win the Claret Jug. McLeod, a Scot, won the 1908 U.S. Open.

So why them? Both players had won the Senior PGA Championship, which began at Augusta National, with Hutchison taking the inaugural edition in 1937 and McLeod winning it, shortened from 54 to 36 holes, in its second year in 1938. The pair started the tradition informally in 1954, and both players not only hit the ceremonial tee shots, but they played the first nine or all 18 holes, then withdrew from the tournament. That continued until 1962.

Hutchison continued in the role until 1973, while McLeod went on until 1976.

From 1977-1980, the Masters didn't have honorary starters. The tradition was revived in 1981 with Byron Nelson and Gene Sarazen taking over the duties. Sarazen made an albatross in the final round -- "the shot heard round the world" -- en route to winning in 1935. Nelson won in 1937 and '42. For years, Nelson played with the 54-hole leader for the final round. They didn't play any additional holes beyond the first tee shot.

In 1983, Nelson didn't hit a ceremonial tee shot, tending to his ill wife Louise. Ken Venturi, twice a runner-up at the Masters, filled in that year with Sarazen. Then in 1984, Sam Snead joined the group. This group continued through 1999, when Sarazen was an honorary starter for the final time before dying four months later.

Nelson stopped as an honorary starter in 2001, five years before dying in 2006. Snead stopped in 2002, dying the following month at the age of 89.

From 2003-2006, there were no honorary starters at the Masters. The tradition was revived in 2007 with Arnold Palmer being the only player to hit the ceremonial tee shot. Then, in 2010, Jack Nicklaus joined Palmer, with the pair kicking off the Masters. In 2012, Gary Player completed the Big Three as the trio of Masters honorary starters.

In 2021, Lee Elder joined Nicklaus and Player on the first tee for the ceremony, becoming an honorary starter. Elder was the first African-American man to compete in the Masters when he competed in the event in 1975.

In 2022, two-time Masters winner Tom Watson was named an honorary starter, joining Nicklaus and Player on the first tee at Augusta National.

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Ryan Ballengee

Ryan Ballengee is founder and editor of Golf News Net. He has been writing and broadcasting about golf for nearly 20 years. Ballengee lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family. He is currently a +2.6 USGA handicap, and he has covered dozens of major championships and professional golf tournaments. He likes writing about golf and making it more accessible by answering the complex questions fans have about the pro game or who want to understand how to play golf better.

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