Augusta, Ga. | It was time, said Arnold Palmer, and that’s exactly what officials at Augusta National were waiting to hear. On a cool, crisp morning shortly before the 71st Masters officially commenced, Palmer strode to the first tee to fill a new role at a club so dear to his heart: honorary starter of the Masters.
As a bright sun peeked through the pines behind Butler Cabin, at the venue where he captured four green jackets and helped deliver golf to the masses, Palmer placed his golf ball on a tee, stood back up and said to no one in particular, “Sure is beautiful, isn’t it?” He then took a mighty cut and hit a slight draw down the left side of the first hole, eliciting a rousing ovation from the ever-growing troops known as Arnie’s Army.
“I waited to do this and (thought) about it for a couple of years,” said Palmer, 77, who played his 50th and final Masters in 2004. “I felt this was an appropriate time.”
The 24 hours leading into his solitary shot took Palmer on a journey across several decades. He thought of his father, Deacon, a club pro and greenkeeper who introduced him to the game, and to his first appearance at Augusta National, in 1955, when he was paired with Gene Sarazen. He called the pairing “one of the great thrills of my life.”
“He was a very quick player,” Palmer recalled of Sarazen, “and that pleased the hell out of me.”
Palmer thought about his first Masters victory in 1958, and friendships he struck up in Augusta with the likes of President Eisenhower and former chairman Clifford Roberts.
“I just was reminiscing and thinking how much Augusta has meant in my life, right up to today,” he said.
A day earlier, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne brimmed with pride and excitement in making the announcement of Palmer’s participation, the newest chapter in a tradition that dates to 1963, when Jock Hutchinson and Fred McLeod shared the role. Later it was Byron Nelson and Sarazen who served as starters, along with Sam Snead. Ken Venturi also served as honorary starter one year.
Snead served as the tournament’s last starter in April 2002, a month before his death.
Payne termed Palmer’s decision “wonderful news” for the Masters.
Said Payne, “We are absolutely delighted that once again Arnold Palmer will be on the first tee at Augusta, a place where he belongs.”
Palmer hit about 20 balls on the practice tee then made his way out the back of the clubhouse as a crowd of a few thousand people made a horseshoe around the tee that extended nearly 150 yards down the fairway.
Palmer seemed to embrace his role, even though he says not being able to chase that drive and play all 18 holes in the Masters is a “hard bullet to swallow.”
Said Palmer, “You’ve got to think about it. You realize it’s over (playing competitively), and it’s been my life for well over 50 years, you know.”