COLUMBIA, S.C. — Gary Player's upcoming ceremonial drive is the latest Masters' honor in a career filled with them.
"I've had a feast at Augusta," Player said in a phone interview this week.
Player will join friends and long-time competitors Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus Thursday morning as honorary starters at Augusta National. It's only one shot in the dewy mist, but Player was thrilled when he was asked last July and his excitement has only increased in the nine months since.
"It will be a wonderful time," Player said.
He's had plenty of those at Augusta National. Player became the first international player to win the Green Jacket with his victory in 1961, which he felt helped give all players from overseas major credibility with golf audiences in the United States.
Player was among the best golfers on Tour when he won the Masters for a second time in 1974. At that time, he was the tournament's oldest champion — until Nicklaus took that distinction with his 1986 victory — then player picked up a third Green Jacket in 1978.
Player recalled that final triumph when he was paired with the late Seve Ballesteros, then a 21-year-old rising star. Player remembers how his son told him he was putting so well he could shoot a 65 and rally to victory.
"So I shot 64 with a bogey," Player said with pride.
Player holds several marks for the Masters, including making a record 23 straight cuts and being the oldest person to qualify for the weekend rounds when he made the cut in 1998 at age 62.
The South African star knew the first time he watched soon-to-be friends Palmer and Nicklaus that they would dominate the game.
"Arnold has such charisma," Player said. "I saw him in Chicago practicing and said, 'That guy there's going to be a champion.'"
Player felt the same way about Nicklaus, who went on to set the all-time record of 18 major championships.
Player's shared championship moments with both Palmer and Nicklaus at Augusta. Player received the Green Jacket from defending champion Palmer in 1961, then returned the favor the next spring when Palmer won the third of his four Masters titles.
In 1975, Nicklaus became joined Palmer as the only golfers with four Masters crowns and Player slipped the famed coat on the Golden Bear's shoulders.
"I've seen history there," Player said.
It's the first time the Masters will have three starters since 1999 with Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead.
"I think it's fun," Palmer said earlier this month at his Bay Hill tournament. "I think it's good for the Masters. I hope people enjoy it."
Palmer has said that his recent overnight stay in the hospital after a sudden rise in his blood pressure will not keep him from the Masters champions' dinner Tuesday night or playing the tournament's par-3 contest with Nicklaus and Player the next day.
Player's health and game are also good. The fitness enthusiast continues his regimen of 1,000 sit-ups a day to keep "thin and trim."
He recently shot a 71 — five shots below his age — at the Bear's Club course in Jupiter, Fla., and expects to make several appearances on the Champions Tour this season. Player's also gratified that his message of fitness and good health has taken root among golf's younger generation who'll chase the Masters' title next week.
"It is very encouraging for me to see that, anything something that I did back then and was ridiculed by some coming to fore," Player said.
Player's busy time in Augusta also includes the Gary Player Invitational Series charity golf tournament at Champions Retreat Golf Club on April 9, the Monday following the Masters. Champions Retreat features designs by Player, Palmer and Nicklaus on the same property.
For now, though, Player can't wait for the "Big Three" to reunite at Augusta National. Player, Palmer and Nicklaus have combined for 13 Masters' titles and 34 major championships on the PGA Tour.
"Arnold, Jack and have been great friends for a long time, for 50 years or more," Player said. "We've traveled around the world extensively together and promoted golf in all corners."
"This," Player said, "is a great thrill."