By Ann Liguori
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The Masters begins Thursday at 8 a.m. after Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit honorary tee shots. With Arnold Palmer's passing last October, there will be a tremendous void on that first tee box without golf's biggest ambassador.
"For the first time in over 60 years, our sport is without its preeminent hero," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said during his annual address on Wednesday. "(He was) a man whose greatness as player and a champion was exceeded only by his qualities as a man. Arnold Palmer let us all into his life; not from the distance that is typically maintained between a superstar and a fan, but into his life, close up, so that we could literally push him to greatness and regale in his accomplishments as though they were our own."
Payne continued: "During his extraordinary life, Arnold Palmer and Augusta National connected in so many wonderful ways. His four victories, the Arnold Palmer Tribute Monument on the 16th tee, his annual participation in our honorary starter ceremony, even his membership into our club, all of them, outward displays of our love and affection for this very special man. And as this week continues, we should and will do more to honor his immeasurable contributions to our club and this tournament, and to this great sport."
Payne said that every patron who enters Augusta National on Thursday will receive a commemorative badge honoring Palmer which says "I am a member of Arnie's Army."
No Phones For You
Payne was asked if Augusta National would ever change its policy that bans cellphones on the premises.
"You'll have to ask the next chairman. That's not going to change while I'm chairman (laughter)," he answered.
Asked to expand, Payne replied, "I just don't think it's appropriate, and the noise is an irritation to not only players -- the dialing, the conversation -- it's a distraction and that's the way we've chosen to deal with it."
New Par 3 Tournament Approach
This year Augusta National made a decision to ask the honorary invitees to no longer participate in the Par 3 Tournament or play practice rounds.
"It was a multiyear evaluation of the increasing popularity of the Par 3 Tournament," Payne explained. "More of the tournament participants and former champions wanting to play, stretching out the required time to complete it to a point that it became exceedingly difficult to do it. Because on that particular day, as you know, people come and they want to watch, and it's like, we call it a two-for-one day, in most cases. They get to watch the players practice in the morning typically, and then they get to enjoy the Par 3 in the afternoon. And we think that's a great combination and thought extending the tee times and the length of the Par 3 any further was not the right way to go.
"I am proud to say, however, that all of them still receive ... they are still welcome invitees to Augusta, receiving tickets for them and their family and food and beverage and all the other things that it's a pleasure to give them to recognize their contributions to the game."
Notable Tee Times
Defending champion Danny Willett gets started at 12:24 p.m. with Matt Kuchar and Australian Curtis Luck, the U.S. Amateur and Asia Pacific Amateur Champion. Jordan Spieth, who won at Augusta in 2015, starts at 10:34 a.m. and will play with Martin Kaymer of Germany and Matthew Fitzpatrick of England. Three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson starts at 10:45 a.m. Jason Day begins at 10:56 a.m. with Brandt Snedeker and Justin Rose. Rory McIlroy has an afternoon start (1:41 p.m.). Two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson, top-ranked Dustin Johnson and Jimmy Walker are in the final grouping at 2:03 p.m.
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