Masters Honorary Starters: Full List of Golfers

How did the Masters honorary starter tradition begin? Who were the first golfers to serve in the role? How many golfers overall have hit the tournament's ceremonial opening tee shot? Those are some of the questions we'll answer in this article.

First, just what is an honorary starter at The Masters Tournament? Most (but not all) years, one or more important golfers, now older and no longer playing The Masters, heads to the first tee just prior to the start of the first round. Those "honorary starters" tee up a ball and swing away, hitting ceremonial opening drives. And with that, The Masters is under way.

In alphabetical order, these are all the golfers who have hit a ceremonial opening drive at The Masters: Jock Hutchison, Fred McLeod, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ken Venturi. In addition, Palmer and Lee Elder have taken part in the opening drive ceremony but, because of age-related health issues, not played a drive.

It's a short list, Elder becoming, at the 2021 Masters, just the 10th golfer to be included in the opening drive ceremony. In fact, from the first Masters in 1934 through the 1962 tournament, no golfers hit a ceremonial opening drive. The tradition of honorary starters didn't begin until the 1963 Masters.

Let's a take a closer look at short list of golfers who have served as Masters honorary starters. Below we've grouped them together in the same ways they were grouped on the first tee for their ceremonial drives. And farther down the page is a chronological list — which golfers were honorary starts for every year of Masters history.

Honorary Starters at The Masters: A Closer Look

Jock Hutchison, 1963-73
Fred McLeod, 1963-76

Who were the first golfers to serve as Masters honorary starters? Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod. Who? If you're just a casual fan, you might not know those names. But those who enjoy golf history surely do: They are both major championship winners. Hutchison won the 1920 PGA Championship and 1921 British Open; McLeod won the 1908 U.S. Open.

Hutchison was 79 years old at the time of the 1963 Masters, and McLeod was 80. Neither won The Masters — both were near 50 by the time The Masters debuted in 1934. So why did Bobby Jones choose them to become the first-ever strikers of the ceremonial opening drive?

Jones helped create the tournament for 50-and-over golfers that today is known as the Senior PGA Championship. That tournament was first played in 1937, and in its first two years it was played at Augusta National Golf Club. Hutchison won it at Augusta National in 1937, and McLeod won it at Augusta in 1938. The 25th anniversary of the second and final time the Senior PGA Championship took place at Augusta was 1963, so Jones asked the two golfers who won that championship at Augusta to tee it up for ceremonial opening drives.

And that his how the Masters honorary starter tradition began.

Gene Sarazen, 1981-99
Byron Nelson, 1981-82 and 1984-2001
Sam Snead, 1984-2002

For health reasons, Jock Hutchison stopped hitting the opening tee ball after 1973 (he passed away in 1976). McLeod continued solo until 1976, but died about a month after his last opening drive at age 94.

It was five years before anyone took over the tradition, and when that happened it was Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson in 1981. Sam Snead joined them in 1984, and the last time all three of them performed the tradition together was 1999 (Sarazen died several weeks after his final ceremonial drive).

Combined, this trio won The Masters six times: Sarazen in 1935, Nelson in 1937 and 1942, and Snead in 1949, 1952 and 1954. After Sarazen's death, Nelson and Snead continued together through 2001. Nelson's health (he was 79 at the time) caused him to withdraw after that, and Snead continued alone one more year, through 2002.

Ken Venturi, 1983

Venturi is a one-timer on the list of Masters honorary starters. In 1983, when Sarazen and Nelson were scheduled as the ceremonial starters, Nelson had to withdraw due to an injury. He had served as a mentor to Venturi early in Venturi's career, and asked Venturi (who by this point was already a longtime golf broadcaster with CBS, including on Masters telecasts) to step in for him.

Arnold Palmer, 2007-2016
Jack Nicklaus, 2010-present
Gary Player, 2012-present

Snead last hit the opening tee ball at the 2002 Masters, then died about a month later. It wasn't until the 2007 Masters that Augusta National asked anyone else to take over the tradition, and when they did, they asked Arnie.

Palmer was the solo ceremonial driver in 2007, 2008 and 2009. In 2010, Jack Nicklaus joined him. In 2012, Gary Player completed the trio. The "Big 3" served together as honorary starters four times, from 2012 through 2015. In 2016, Palmer, in declining health, felt too frail to hit a tee shot, although he was present on the tee during the ceremony.

Combined, this group won 13 Masters titles: six for Nicklaus, four for Palmer and three for Player.

Lee Elder, 2021

Nicklaus and Player continued as honorary starters, teeing off the tournament as a twosome from 2016 on. But for the 2021 Masters, Augusta National asked Lee Elder to join them as a way of honoring Elder, who, in 1975, became the first African-American golfer to play in a Masters Tournament. Elder, age 86, felt too unstable to hit a drive, but took part in the ceremony.

Honorary Starters By Year at Every Masters

  • 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
  • 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
In 2020, there was no honorary starter ceremony due to changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 Masters was delayed until November, and, due to the shorter days, required starting groups off both the No. 1 and No. 10 tees. Augusta National poobahs decided to forego the ceremonial opening drive in those circumstances.

Other gaps in the chronological list above occurred when a golfer who was serving solo either died or became too frail to continue the tradition. In those circumstances, Augusta National paused for a few years before asking someone else to step in and resume the honorary starter tradition.

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