The gates on Thursday morning did not open at Augusta National Golf Club until 7:30 am. Even the press isn't allowed near the course until ten minutes before the first tee time.
Those first shots are special. During almost every playing of the Masters tournament, a former champion will hit a ceremonial first tee shot.
Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Walter Hagen did it for decades. Then a handful of years ago, four-time champion Arnold Palmer was asked to do the honors. Soon after, six-time champion Jack Nicklaus followed suit. But the ceremony didn't seem complete until this morning: Palmer and Nicklaus were joined by the other member of their "Big 3", Gary Player.
Maybe that's why Phil Mickelson was standing behind the first tee, waiting for the three legends just after 7 o'clock. When Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player walked up and saw Mickelson waiting they couldn't believe it.
Jack shook Phil's hand and said "this is sort of early for you, isn't it?" Phil quickly replied, "I wasn't going to miss this." That's despite Mickelson having the latest tee time of the day at approximately 1:53 p.m.
Later on in the press room, all three had more to say about Mickelson's appearance:
Nicklaus: "I thought it was very special. A nice compliment."
Player: "I thought it was remarkable."
Palmer: "I did too. I thought it was wonderful that he came out."
Player: "You look at the way Phil treats the galleries, its very special."
Then again, how could anyone miss this? The three biggest ambassadors of the game were back together again. Oh, and how did each one hit it? Palmer striped it. Player rifled a low stinger. Nicklaus finished by hitting it on the screws. And all three drives landed center cut, in the middle of the first fairway.
One more reason its a tradition unlike any other. And also, better than any other.