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The Masters gets off to thrilling start with Arnold, Jack and Gary

I love Magnolia Lane. I love Amen Corner, players skipping shots on Tuesday across the pond onto the 16th green, and Sunday roars on the back nine. I love the azaleas, the green jackets, and the fairly priced pimento cheese sandwiches.

All of the above have helped make The Masters my favorite sporting event in the world. But what I love most about this event happened just after 7:30 a.m. Thursday. That's when Club Chairman Billy Payne said, "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the King: Mr. Arnold Palmer."

At 84, Palmer is battling a bad back, but he still put one in the fairway. He says he'll have surgery soon, so that he can improve his quality of life. Will he keep showing up to get this tournament started? "As long as I'm asked I'll be here."

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome golf's greatest global ambassador: Mr. Gary Player."

The international icon from South Africa hit it on the screws, putting it right in the center of the fairway.

"Winning this event three times and playing in it for over 50 years did more for my career than any other event. And being here with two of my closest friends, two men I battled so hard against is such a thrill."

"Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our six-time champion: Mr. Jack Nicklaus."

The Golden Bear's tee shot almost mirrored Player's. "I think I got him by a yard." The consummate competitor, for many years Nicklaus scoffed at the idea of being part of a ceremonial event.

What changed his mind? "When the Club came to me and asked me to join Arnold, and then they asked Gary, too, it was something I needed to be part of. I really miss competing in this event more than any other. I guess this is the next best thing."

We will never again see Michael Jordan attempt a free throw in the NBA Finals, or watch Joe Montana try to find Jerry Rice in the back of the end zone in a Super Bowl. But each year in April we are blessed to witness three of golf's greatest legends christen the game's biggest event.

In the next 80 hours or so we'll watch top players rise and fall, obscure names climb the leaderboard, and ultimately a new Masters champion will be crowned. And each of them have the aging legends that striped it right down the fairway on Thursday morning to thank.

"Ladies and gentlemen, the 2014 Masters is now underway."