By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Crowded around Augusta National's first tee, 'Arnie's Army' was out in force to salute their leader on Thursday as Arnold Palmer's ceremonial first shot to open the Masters was limited to an honorary appearance.
Too frail to perform his duties, the 86-year-old Palmer looked on longingly from a white lawn chair as the two other members of golf's 'Big Three', longtime rivals and friends Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, soldiered on without him to get the year's first major off to an emotional start.
After striking his shot, Nicklaus, tears welling in his eyes, helped Palmer to his feet as the 'King', the 'Golden Bear' and 'Black Knight' posed for the traditional first tee photograph while roars echoed through the tall Georgia pines.
"I think that everybody was happy to see Arnold out on the tee," said the 76-year-old Nicklaus. "I think Arnold was happy to be on the tee. I think he would have preferred to hit a golf ball.
"I talked to him at the Masters dinner. I said, 'Arnold, when you're out there, what if we just take you up and had you hit? I don't care if you putt it off the tee, I think everybody would love to have you do anything.'
"So this morning I talked to him and I said, 'What do you want to do?' He said, 'I'm good.' I said, 'Fine, let's leave it alone.'"
A fixture and charismatic presence at Augusta National for over six decades, four-time Masters champion Palmer has been rarely seen on the club grounds this April.
Tom Watson, who is playing his 43rd and last Masters this week, filled in for Palmer at Wednesday's Par-3 contest as a partner with Nicklaus and Player.
Following Thursday's opening ceremonies, Nicklaus and Player made their way to the media center for a news conference while Palmer disappeared into the club house.
For many in the gallery who remembered Palmer as the dashing young athlete with Popeye-like forearms and leading man good looks. it was shocking to see the King in such a fragile state.
"I think that we had a very unusual friendship amongst competitors," said the 80-year-old Player, reflecting on his long rivalry with Palmer and Nicklaus who between them have made 97 Masters appearances and won 34 majors.
"It was so fiercely competitive, and we made it very clear we wanted to beat the hell out of each other. And when we did, we looked the other man in the eye and said, 'Well done.'
"To have longevity has been a special gift. And to come here today and to be on the tee with Arnold being a part of us, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass.
"But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in respect."
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)