Jack to join Arnie as Masters starter

The all-time leader in Masters titles will be making a comeback at Augusta National Golf Club in 2010 -- for one shot, at least.

It was announced on Monday that six-time champion Jack Nicklaus will join Arnold Palmer as an honorary starter at next year's tournament.

Nicklaus, who made the last of his 45 career Masters appearances in 2005, said he was previously reluctant to steal the spotlight from Palmer, but accepted the invitation when his longtime friend and rival encouraged such a move.

"I have always had great respect for Arnold and his legacy at the Masters, and I did not, in any way, want to infringe on the opportunity for Arnold to have and enjoy this Masters tradition for himself," Nicklaus said in a statement released Monday by Augusta National Golf Club. "He is so deserving of this honor, and thus I felt it was his time, not mine.

"Recently, I was invited by both Augusta National and Arnold to join him on the first tee, and because he enthusiastically supported the invitation, it became an easy decision for me."

"I am very happy to have Jack join me as an honorary starter," Palmer said in an e-mail. "It has been a pleasure to have been a part of this special tradition at the Masters these last couple of years and it's certainly appropriate that Jack become a part of that tradition, given his great record at Augusta National. I welcome having my long-time good friend and competitor with me next year on the first tee."

Masters week is April 5-11.

Nicklaus first began competing in the Masters as an amateur in 1959, winning his first green jacket in 1963 at age 23. He later added titles in 1965, '66, '72 and '75 before adding the final of his 18 career major championship victories in 1986, when he shot a back-nine 30 to triumphantly become the oldest winner in tournament history at 46.

"I have had such a longstanding appreciation and love affair with Augusta National and the Masters Tournament," he said in a statement. "This honor is a wonderful way for me to say thank you to the many patrons who have supported me over the decades."

Nicklaus and Palmer will tee off at the first hole at Augusta National prior to the opening round of the 2010 tournament on April 8. The custom of having honorary starters began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison (1963-73) and Fred McLeod (1963-76) performing the duties. Byron Nelson (1981-2001, nonconsecutive), Gene Sarazen (1981-99), Ken Venturi (1983), Sam Snead (1984-2002) and Palmer (2007-present) continued the practice.

"I am honored that Jack Nicklaus has accepted our invitation," Billy Payne, chairman of Augusta National, said in a statement. "We are delighted and fortunate to have such a great ambassador and icon of our sport take part in this tradition. He has inspired generations of golfers and having Jack join Arnold on the first tee next April will be a special thrill for his many loyal fans around the world."

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com.