Augusta, Ga. | There were too many “Arnie moments” to count during the King’s final Masters. Not even the blanket TV coverage and the
millions of words that appeared in print could document all the times Palmer made a fan’s day by making eye contact; all the times he signaled “thumbs up;” all the times he bantered with the gallery.
Of course, there were the obvious vignettes, beginning Wednesday when he nearly topped Tiger Woods’ hole-in-one on the final hole of the Par 3 Contest.
Before he hit, Palmer told Woods the story of an earlier Par 3 Contest, when playing partner Fuzzy Zoeller aced No. 9. They had a side bet going, thousand-dollar holes-in-one.
Arnie peeled off 10 hundred-dollar bills on the spot, then asked Zoeller to walk up to the green and pull the ball out of the cup so it wouldn’t keep Palmer’s shot from going in. Arnie nearly jarred that one, too, just like he did with Woods.
Had that ball gone in, Arnie told Tiger, he would have swam across the lake to retrieve it.
“I think he probably would have, too,” said Sam Saunders, Palmer’s 16-year-old grandson and caddie for Masters week. “It was so cool.”
So was the scene Friday when Palmer, walking down the hill from the sixth tee, caught the attention of Jack Nicklaus, who had just arrived on the 16th green. The two legends tipped their hats to each other and exchanged thumbs-up. The crowds surrounding both holes went nuts.
Nearly lost amid Friday’s hoopla were Nicklaus’ matter-of-fact remarks that this likely was his last Masters, too. No big sendoff required.
Nicklaus is respected but not revered. He doesn’t radiate the warmth of Arnold Palmer. Sentiment isn’t his style.
Of the other 92 starters in this year’s tournament, 81 hadn’t been born when Palmer played in his first Masters in 1955. They don’t remember that before Nicklaus became the Golden Bear, he was Fat Jack. The young upstart from Ohio was no fan favorite when he knocked Palmer off his perch in the early 1960s, and despite all his championships, Nicklaus never has matched Palmer in fan appeal. It’s not likely anyone ever will. Arnie’s personality is authentic, not the creation of an ad campaign, as is the case with many modern-era athletes.
Palmer has played in all but 18 Masters. His record of 50 consecutive will stand for at least four years. Gary Player, who has teed it up at the National 47 times in a row, prides himself on his fitness. Player, 68, will compete ’til he drops.
Palmer was 24 when his streak of 50 consecutive Masters began. Tiger Woods was 19 when he played in his first Masters. If Woods is still playing the tournament at age 70, it would be his 51st consecutive Masters.
“I hope I’m not fertilizer by then,” Woods quipped. “I swear, playing 40 more of these, it’s incredible, absolutely incredible. To have the luck of never being injured in all of those years, and then being in good enough shape to play, and having the desire to compete every time.”
Unabashedly, Palmer admits to being a dreamer.
“Tomorrow I could go out and shoot 65, who knows?” he said after Round 1.
“I continue to get up in the morning enthusiastically and go pick up a golf club with a thought that I can somewhere find that secret to making the cut. That’s just an example, but it applies to other things in life, too. That’s the way I live and the way I think and the way I feel.”
Just recently, Palmer went to a stronger grip in hopes of gaining distance.
“He wants it so bad,” said Saunders. “He wants to go out and shoot 68 more than any guy out there does. Even though it’s probably something that’s not in range, but he thinks he can do it. And you know what, I think he can do it, too.”
So do the remnants of Arnie’s Army (which first surfaced in Augusta in 1955), many of whom made the pilgrimage here for their hero’s last hurrah at the Masters. In addition to Palmer’s family – it was the first time all his children and grandchildren had ever been together at a tournament – his gallery included friends such as 85-year-old Lt. Col. Joe Curtis of Macon, Ga. “Colonel Joe” has followed Palmer in every round of 39 consecutive Masters, using a motorized scooter in recent years.
Also here was Spider Miller, whom Palmer befriended when Miller was playing in the 1999 Masters as the ’98 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion. He’s a typical Arnie crony.
“We play a little golf, do a little flying, do a little drinking,” said Miller. “He likes me because he knows damn well he can beat me, and he knows I’ll pay him when he does.”
Trudging over the hilly 7,290 yards of Augusta National for two days, banging 3-wood approaches into the par 4s, enduring painful shin splints, missing shots with the knowledge of what used to be, feeling the love from his fans – all took their toll on Palmer.
“I’m not going to make a big, long speech today,” he said after Friday’s emotional scene at the 18th hole had begun to fade into history. “I’m through. I’ve had it. I’m done. Cooked. Washed up. Finished, whatever you want to say.”
As Palmer’s participation on the Champions Tour winds down, he expects to spend more time at Augusta National, playing recreational golf as a member. “As far as becoming a factor in the administration (of the club or the Masters), I really don’t think that I will,” Palmer said. “I might walk around with my green jacket on and watch the tournament sometime, but that will be about as heavy as I get.”
He is warming to the idea of a role as honorary starter, beginning with next year’s Masters. Which doesn’t mean he’ll be content with merely hitting a ceremonial first drive. Don’t be surprised if he plays nine or 18 holes, like Byron Nelson used to.
After all, being King has its privileges.