At 87, This Part Is Hard to Master

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 87, Byron Nelson is thinking about retiring for a second time. Sam Snead is also 87, but he plans to quit about the same time they stop growing azaleas at Augusta National.

"Think about this," Nelson said. "You've done nothing for 55 years and then, all of a sudden, you're called upon to play before 5,000 people and 10 cameras. It's tough.

"It's fun, it's an honor, but you're wondering if you'll hit somebody."

What Nelson is talking about is one of the more touching moments each year at the tradition-heavy Masters, when he and Snead officially begin the tournament early on Thursday morning by hitting ceremonial tee shots.

Expectations aren't what they used to be. In years past, Nelson and Snead wanted to make sure their golf balls made it to the top of the hill up the first fairway. That's changed now, certainly for Nelson, who hopes he hits it straight off the tee and that his ball doesn't carom off somebody's head.

There's one more change in the ceremony this year. Gene Sarazen won't be there. The 1935 champion and Hall of Fame member, who has been part of the first ball ceremony since 1981, died last year at 97.

"Of course we'll miss him," said Nelson, who will also be missed if he follows through on making Thursday's appearance his last.

Nelson said he asked Augusta chairman Hootie Johnson if this would be a good time to make a change, but that Johnson asked him to stay on, at least for this year.

Nelson, who has a bad left leg and walks with a cane, says his future participation is not guaranteed.

"They need to start thinking about somebody else," Nelson said.

And Snead?

"Snead will be able to stand up there and make a good turn on his swing as long as he lives," Nelson said.

Snead says there's nothing wrong with Nelson that a small change in technique wouldn't help.

"You know, I told Byron if he just pivots with his left foot and uses his right foot as a prop, he could hit it pretty good," Snead said. "But he's so used to going on his right side."

One thing is certain. However Nelson manages to stand up and wherever he hits it, and regardless how sweet Snead's fluid swing continues to be, this unique Masters tradition is clearly in transition.

It began in 1963, when two of Bobby Jones' old buddies, Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod, hit the first balls and played nine holes. McLeod had played in the first Masters in 1934, Hutchison in 1935. They were the traditional Masters starters until Hutchison bowed out in 1973 and McLeod in 1976.

No one stepped in to take their places until 1981, when Nelson and Sarazen started the first-ball tradition again. Nelson, Masters champion in 1937 and 1942, missed out in the 1983 Masters when he was ill, so Ken Venturi served as a pinch-hitter. Snead joined the group in 1984 and for 16 years began the Masters with Sarazen and Nelson.

For several years, they played the first nine holes, but stopped doing that a long time ago.

"I really enjoyed that part," Nelson said. "I got to see the course, the speed of the greens and so forth, but I hadn't played any golf in so long that I started to feel uncomfortable. Still, the honor of it was great."

Snead won the Masters in 1949, 1952 and 1954. He turns 88 next month, but continues to play regularly and looks forward to his official duties as unofficial starter.

"It's one of those great moments," Snead said. "I'll miss Sarazen, without question. But I just hope I can make a decent shot. I don't want to top it. My knees are bad and I don't know if they're ever going to get better. I can hardly get upstairs.

"I can swing it pretty good, though. I'd like to get a little more power in it, but I just know I'd fall down."

There is no timetable for changes in the starters' lineup, but if the tradition is to continue, there are some ready replacements. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player still compete in the Masters and have not indicated they are thinking of anything else.

But it will be Nelson and Snead on the first tee again this year. Nelson isn't sure what club he will hit. He used a driver last year, but is considering a three-wood, hoping for more accuracy. Snead will hit a driver. After they have done their duty for the early morning crowd and all the cameras, they are planning to walk back to the clubhouse and have breakfast.

Nelson will have other duties as well. He is the master of ceremonies at the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, and also a member of the General Improvements committee, which will meet Thursday morning, just about the time Nelson is finishing breakfast.

"I've had more honors than anyone who's ever played, I guess," Nelson said.

"I've been real fortunate to be here this long."

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The Masters

* When: Thursday-Sunday

* Course: Augusta National, Augusta, Ga.

* 1999 Champion: Jose Maria Olazabal

* Television: USA, CBS

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