Augusta, Ga. — Sam Snead's eyes sparkled as he stood under the giant oak tree in front of Augusta National's clubhouse, reliving everything from his ceremonial first drive to how he told President Eisenhower to stick his rear end out when he played years ago.
A few feet away, an aging trio of former champions trudged down the first fairway Thursday, more interested in just being able to finish than worried about what they would shoot.
Doug Ford, looking all of 78, didn't make it far. He packed his clubs after spraying it weakly off the tee and making double bogey on the relatively benign opening hole.
For Ford, it was a record 49th Masters appearance, one of the benefits of his 1957 win. He got $5,000 and became the subject of Masters News Bulletin No. 11, which solemnly announced his official withdrawal.
"Bad hip," he told playing partner Billy Casper before leaving.
The portly Casper fared even worse, making a quadruple-bogey-8 on the first hole. But he and Charles Coody shuffled on anyway, virtually ignored by the crowds that had come to see the likes of Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson.
"These are the old guys," one fan said to another as Casper walked by. "That's the guy who used to eat the buffalo meat."
Casper would need a back nine rally to break 90, finishing by making a 10-footer on 18 for 87.
"Carpal tunnel," said Casper, 69. "I just don't have the power in my right hand I did before. Plus, my back was giving me problems."
Talk of physical ailments was almost as common as discussion of the fast greens among some players in the Masters, where a contingent of former champions plays on and on and on.
Though they have no chance of winning and little of even making the cut former champions such as Casper, Ford, and 69-year-old Gay Brewer use their winner's exemption to return each year in an annual spring rite. "All of us still enjoy playing the course," Casper said. "It's just so beautiful here."
Not that anyone would dare criticize the green jackets who run the Masters in the tradition of Bobby Jones, where past champions are respected, even revered, and certainly allowed to play any time they want. Ford was once asked why he continued playing, despite missing the cut for the last 30 years.
"Because I won the darned thing," he replied.
Imagine telling 71-year-old Arnold Palmer, a four-time winner, he could not play despite the fact he has not made a cut in 18 years.
Some champs don't play at all, for fear of embarrassing themselves. George Archer, the 1969 winner, hasn't played since 1992, while 77-year-old Art Wall, the 1959 winner, retired from the tournament in 1988 after missing seven straight cuts.
A select few go on to status as ceremonial starters who hit the first tee shots of the tournament on Thursday mornings, then retire to the clubhouse to tell stories of old.
The 88-year-old Snead did just that Thursday, splitting the middle of the fairway with his drive and holding court.
"This is a wonderful place," Snead said, in between telling stories of how he taught Eisenhower to push his rear out and the times he played with Jones. Snead, who had shared the ceremonial duties with Nelson and the late Gene Sarazen, could be teeing it up alone next year with the retirement of Nelson as a starter. "I hope I'll have another one," Snead said.