Who Are The Masters Honorary Starters?

The tradition sees greats of the game play a ceremonial tee shot before the first round

Tom Watson takes a ceremonial tee shot at the 2023 Masters
Tom Watson is one of three current honorary starters
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Among the many beloved traditions of The Masters is the honorary starter, where greats of the game take to the first tee before the opening round at Augusta National and hit ceremonial opening shots.

The tradition has its origins in the 1941 tournament, when amateur Francis Ouimet, who won the 1913 US Open, played in the first round but then withdrew. 

Ouimet was only taking part in the tournament at the request of co-founder Bobby Jones. He had tried to persuade Ouimet to play each year since the Major's inception. Eventually, he obliged and was paired with 11-time Major winner Walter Hagen. 

Before play even began, the amateur said he would only play one round before withdrawing, and he stayed true to his word. That led to the idea that would later become formalized, beginning in 1963, when Major winners Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod took on the role.

Over the years, some of the world’s best-known players have performed the task, including Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer.

Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead at the 1999 Masters

Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead have been honorary starters

(Image credit: Getty Images)

However, recent years have seen three all-time greats take on the honor – Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

Six-time Masters champion Nicklaus has by far the most experience in the role of the three, after first performing it alongside Palmer in 2010. Three-time Masters champion Player joined them in 2012, but sadly, Palmer passed away in 2016, leaving just Nicklaus and Player to continue the tradition.

The pair were joined by Lee Elder at the 2021 tournament, in recognition of his groundbreaking contribution to the game as the event’s first black player. Elder passed away later that year, and two-time winner of the Major Tom Watson joined Nicklaus and Palmer in 2022 to complete the latest line-up.

The three performed the ceremonial tee shot again in 2023, and will do so for a third time at the 2024 edition, continuing a tradition that, like many others, sets The Masters apart from any other tournament.

Past Masters Honorary Starters

  • Jock Hutchison, 1963-73 
  • Fred McLeod, 1963-76 
  • Gene Sarazen, 1981-99 
  • Byron Nelson, 1981-82 and 1984-2001 
  • Ken Venturi, 1983 
  • Sam Snead, 1984-2002 
  • Arnold Palmer, 2007-2015 
  • Jack Nicklaus, 2010-present 
  • Gary Player, 2012-present 
  • Lee Elder, 2021
  • Tom Watson, 2022-present 

Do The Honorary Starters Play 18 Holes?

Nowadays, the honorary starters only take the first tee shot. However, when the tradition began in 1963, players would typically play nine or 18 holes before withdrawing. However, even though that's not the case anymore, the honorary starters still have a uniformed caddie and their full golf bag.

Mike Hall
News Writer

Mike has over 25 years of experience in journalism, including writing on a range of sports throughout that time, such as golf, football and cricket. Now a freelance staff writer for Golf Monthly, he is dedicated to covering the game's most newsworthy stories. 

He has written hundreds of articles on the game, from features offering insights into how members of the public can play some of the world's most revered courses, to breaking news stories affecting everything from the PGA Tour and LIV Golf to developmental Tours and the amateur game. 

Mike grew up in East Yorkshire and began his career in journalism in 1997. He then moved to London in 2003 as his career flourished, and nowadays resides in New Brunswick, Canada, where he and his wife raise their young family less than a mile from his local course. 

Kevin Cook’s acclaimed 2007 biography, Tommy’s Honour, about golf’s founding father and son, remains one of his all-time favourite sports books.