News & Opinion

Golf icons prove to be even better with age

THE WOODLANDS, Texas – One of the great traditions that every golf fan should experience is the opening tee shot at the Masters. It wasn't the same without the late Arnold Palmer this year, but to see Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player try to outdo each other, well, it doesn't get much better than that. 

Unless, of course, you could get to watch them play 18 holes instead of hit one tee shot. And why not, for good measure, add Lee Trevino for a nonstop laugh track to the group and sprinkle in names such as Ben Crenshaw, Tony Jacklin, David Graham and Tom Weiskopf. Then you'd have the 3M Greats of Golf, an 18-hole, three-man-team scramble to be played Saturday at The Woodlands Country Club Tournament Course. It's the sideshow to the PGA Tour Champions’ Insperity Invitational, but if you ask me it's really the main event.

Don't take my word for it. The pros grow giddy when talking about seeing their heroes from yesteryear. Fred Couples spoke about playing a Masters practice round at Augusta National with Player, chatting with Trevino at the Legends of Golf in April and seeing Don January holding court in the clubhouse at the Insperity. 

"Amazing just to see these guys," Couples said. "I wish we had it a few more times during the year. I know they will have bigger galleries than we will when they're out playing, and we're all OK with that." 

If you become a shrinking violet around greatness, you’re not alone. Miguel Angel Jimenez recalled the time at the 1994 Andalucia Open in his native Spain when he was paired with Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros in the opening two rounds. Nerves got the better of him, and he could barely get the ball airborne on the practice range.

"My brother, who's my coach also, he said, 'Please, relax, play and enjoy. This is a unique opportunity to play with two of the best players in the world,' " Jimenez said. 

Jimenez arrived at the tee first, still shaking, as Nicklaus and Ballesteros approached. To break the tension, when Jimenez exchanged scorecards, he said, "Gentlemen, to me it's an honor to play with my hero Seve and with the greatest player in the world, Jack," Jimenez said. "Whew. I felt like I needed to say something just to release something from myself."

Both men smiled, and off they went. 

Nicklaus, Player and the other greats of golf are still revered for their accomplishments. Together, the 12-pack of golf's legends have combined to win 173 times on the PGA Tour, including 49 major titles. They collected another 105 titles, including 30 major wins on the back nine of their careers while teeing it up on the senior circuit.

Trevino, 77, considers Saturday's hit-and-giggle fun to be one of his four majors now. They still feel the tug of competitive golf, and they live to show that they still can deliver in the clutch. Time after time, they do. Weiskopf recalled the time a few years ago when his team posted 16 under and he was convinced that their score could not be beaten. In came Nicklaus-Player-Trevino with 17 under to steal his glory.

"You still have to play your butt off," Weiskopf said. 

In preparation for the exhibition round, Weiskopf, Graham and Crenshaw tinkered with SuperStroke grips and sought the right shaft for a Callaway Epic driver in the equipment trailer. It was like old times. Or as Weiskopf put it, "This week is like going back to your favorite bar. The cast of characters have changed, but the stories are still the same."

"Are the girls prettier than they used to be?" Graham cracked.

After the laughter died down, Weiskopf became serious again and said, "It's nice to be remembered."

For those in attendance Saturday, it's pretty nice to remember, too.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak