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Emotional tribute to Arnold Palmer kicks off 81st Masters at Augusta

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Palmer honored at start of 2017 Masters (3:41)

Arnold Palmer's widow, Kit Gawthrop, joins Augusta National chairman Billy Payne to open the 2017 tournament. (3:41)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- With tears in their eyes, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit ceremonial tee shots to start the 81st Masters on Thursday morning at Augusta National with Arnold Palmer's green jacket draped over an empty white lawn chair nearby.

It is the first Masters Tournament since the four-time champion's death in September and the first without the golf icon since 1954, the year before started a run of playing the tournament 50 straight times.

Palmer's widow, Kit, was in attendance, as were thousands of spectators and several PGA Tour players, including Rickie Fowler. A moment of silence was observed before Player and Nicklaus pulled drivers out of their golf bags.

"This is a wonderful and difficult day,'' Masters chairman Billy Payne said. "Arnold Palmer was more than a king. He was my friend. He was your friend.''

The Masters began the tradition honorary starters kicking off the tournament in 1963, with various players taking on the duties over the years. Palmer began in 2007 and was joined by Nicklaus in 2010 and Player in 2012. The trio combined to win the Masters 13 times.

A few weeks ago, Player, 81, had tweaked Nicklaus, 77, on Twitter by joking about having outdriven the Golden Bear a year ago. On Thursday, with some help from Rory McIlroy, who adjusted the settings on his driver, Nicklaus got Player by a few yards. They both knocked it into the fairway.

"The official word was that it was a little past,'' Nicklaus said. "Gary is claiming a tie. But it's OK. It doesn't make any difference one way or the other. Neither one of us topped it, skied it or whiffed it.''

The ceremony took place in sunny, cool and windy conditions that promise to make the first round quite challenging. Player marveled at the attention.

"I got on the first tee and was choking,'' he said. "People were coming in here by the thousands at 6:30 this morning.''

And a good bit of that can be attributed to Palmer, Nicklaus said.

"Arnold came along at a time when television was getting started,'' Nicklaus said. "It was a time when the game was really stimulated by Arnold. The Masters was just sort of getting its feet wet. Arnold made it popular and took the tournament from just being popular to one of the biggest events in golf.

"The Masters did make Arnold in many ways because of his wins in '58, '60, '62 and '64. But in another way, Arnold made the Masters. I think Arnold put the Masters on the map. They were very good for each other.''