As Tom Watson joins Augusta National’s list of honorary starters, how did it all start?

Golf has never been shy about celebrating its long-ago greats. During Masters week at Augusta National, that reverence is always on display.

The Tuesday night Champions Dinner is a big nod to the past, but it’s a private affair, which leaves the ceremonial Thursday morning tee time as the most public display of adulation for the game’s most historic figures.

This year, Tom Watson, an eight-time major champion (including two Masters), joins Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter for the 2022 Masters Tournament, which is scheduled to officially tee off shortly thereafter.

It has become such a familiar ritual, it’s easy to assume it’s forever been among the Masters traditions. But it hasn’t. It was nearly three decades before the ceremony was introduced at the 1963 Masters, and since then there have been a pair of four-year gaps without any honorary starters.

A course worker places the nameplates of honorary starters Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus at the first tee during the first round of the 2014 The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

How’d it all start? Well, let’s begin with a piece of trivia.

Today, the Senior PGA Championship is a traditional major tournament on the PGA Tour’s 50-and-up Champions circuit. It began in the late 1930s and the first two installments were played at Augusta National Golf Club.

The first two winners were Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the second and final Senior PGA at Augusta, Masters host Bobby Jones invited Hutchison (then 79) and McLeod (80) to do the honors. They continued the tradition together through 1973, then McLeod did it alone for three years following Hutchison’s death.

Following McLeod’s death, there was no opening tee-shot ceremony until 1981, when it became the domain of golfing giants — Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson were the first two, later joined by Sam Snead.

Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod (file photo)

In more recent times, the chore belonged to Arnold Palmer, who was later joined by Jack Nicklaus, and then Gary Player to round out the Big Three from the ’60s. Since Palmer’s death in 2016, Nicklaus and Player have started each Masters as a ceremonial twosome, though Lee Elder joined them last year to be honored — health limitations kept him from hitting a shot.

And now Watson, at a relatively young 72, joins Nicklaus (82) and Player (86), on a first tee that will be weighed down by 35 professional major championships, including 11 Masters.

Honorary Masters starters

1934-1962 — No honorary starters
1963-73 — Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod
1974-76 — Fred McLeod
1977-80 — No honorary starters
1981-82 — Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson
1983 — Gene Sarazen and Ken Venturi (subbing for Nelson)
1984-1999 — Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead
2000-2001 — Byron Nelson and Sam Snead
2002 — Sam Snead
2003-2006 — No honorary starters
2007-2009 — Arnold Palmer
2010-2011 — Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus
2012-2016 — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player
2016-2019 — Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player
2020 — No honorary starters
2021 — Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Elder
2022 — Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson

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