Sapakoff: Hanging out at the Masters with Arnie, Jack and Gary

Gary Player , left, reacts to almost making a hole in one on the No. 4 hole while Jack Nicklaus center, and Arnold Palmer look on during the Par 3 Contest at Augusta National Golf Club on Wednesday. The trio served as honorary starters Thursday (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Curtis Compton)

And then Jack said to Arnie, "You were here a long time before we were."

And Arnie, being Arnie, shot right back.

"Yes," Arnold Palmer said, eyeing youngsters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, "and I hope I'm here a long time after you."

The portable board listing players at each hole of a golf tournament usually includes their tournament plus-minus status following their names. At the first tee on a chilly Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club, ages were the numbers following legendary names serving as honorary starters at the 78th Masters: 84 for Palmer, 78 for Player, 74 for Nicklaus.

People come from all over the world to savor Augusta scenes that don't change much. Your father's Amen Corner smells as sweet. Magnolia Lane endures.

But Palmer, Nicklaus and Player appearing together for the ceremonial purpose of striking golf balls? We are talking about the most influential golfer, the greatest golfer and an international golf ambassador who won nine majors. You never know how much longer for The Big Three, a trio that combined to win 13 green jackets, including seven in a row from 1960-66.

"I suppose as long as they ask me to do it," said Palmer, who has been an honorary starter since 2007 and grouped with Nicklaus and Player since 2012.

Those first three shots Thursday were memorable, the get-together with the media better still.

"I think Jack out-drove me by a yard or two," Player said. "But it's not bad when you think he used to out-drive me by 50. But he did hitch on a sprinkler, you didn't see that."

Nicklaus, ever the competitor, muttered "I wish I could do this again" as he approached his tee shot.

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

It wasn't just Masters patrons crowding around the first tee Thursday morning, it was also lots of Augusta National members in their green jackets.

Palmer, wearing a lime green sweater, didn't drive as far as Nicklaus and Player. But he maintains that distinctively steely Arnie follow-through that inspired the everyman golfer for decades.

There are 24 Masters rookies in 2014, including 18 pros. The rest of the field is crammed with big names.

But no active threesome will have competitive careers and relationships quite like The Big Three. They played together Wednesday in the annual Par 3 Contest.

Arnie had an Army.

<URL destination="">The Golden Bear almost made a hole in one.

</URL>Player loved it.

"It's been a wonderful journey with these two gentlemen here," said Player, a longtime fitness guru from South Africa. "We went across the world. We went down gold mines together. We visited my ranch. We've slept at each other's homes and our wives have known each other. We have had a great friendship."

They swapped golf stories once again. With defending champion Adam Scott talking a lot this week about how he enjoyed wearing his green jacket around the globe over the last 12 months, the Big Three was asked about green jacket memories.

Nicklaus pointed out that, not so long ago, green jackets were strictly confined to Augusta National.

"I've never taken it off the Club grounds," Nicklaus said.

"The same," Palmer added.

Ah, that sneaky Gary Player. He smuggled his home to South Africa in 1961, only to get a phone call from infamously stern Augusta National co-founder Clifford Roberts.

Player, with help from Nicklaus, recreated the conversation.

Roberts: "Gary, you know the jacket is not supposed to leave the Club. Do you have your jacket at home?

Player: "Yes, I do, Mr. Roberts."

Roberts: "Well, it's not supposed to be there."

Player: "Well, you can come and fetch it."

Roberts: "No, in all seriousness. Please don't ever wear it in public."

The Big Three green jacket winners were very public Thursday, an Augusta National treat more breathtaking than Amen Corner.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff