2002 Masters: Palmer makes potentially his last Masters memorable

Augusta, Ga. | It was Thursday morning, opening day of the Masters, and Arnold Palmer dawdled and reminisced in the Augusta National clubhouse. He thought of his four Masters titles, the last coming 38 years ago. He thought of the enduring influence of his father, golf professional Deacon Palmer.

His own pro career now spanned almost 50 years. Gone was his father, and his wife, too. But, he reminded himself, the spectators are still there. He would not disappoint them.

This would be his last Masters and his last major championship and his last trip through the garden of adoring fans, and he would give them a show. Win or lose, it had always been so: Arnold Palmer, all flamboyance and charm.

The beloved man exited the clubhouse and stood under golf’s most famous oak tree. His mood had turned from reflective to jovial. He already had decided to end it right there, on the Masters field of battle, although no announcement had been made. That would come after the first round. Meanwhile, he would enjoy every step and every swing and every brush with an old friend or familiar flower.

“I love it here in the spring,” said the smiling Palmer of the former nursery transformed into a course by heroic Bobby Jones. Palmer’s statement was a prelude to a parting. This would be it, his 48th and last Masters. There would be no more suiting up for major battle among the dogwoods and azaleas.

Someone patted him good naturedly on the stomach.

“I’ve lost 10 (pounds),” Palmer responded. “I feel good.”

Aging gracefully at 72, he then unveiled his game plan for the day. “I’m going to try a little bit of the old,” he said, meaning his old swing. “We’ll see how it works.”

He knew it would hiccup like a rusty machine, but he was happy to accept the challenge of his last major. Unable to carry his drive to the top of the hill on the first hole, which was lengthened 25 yards this year to 435 yards, he hit a wonderful fairway wood shot to the front of the green but faced an uphill 45-foot putt.

He hit the putt too hard and also pulled it. The ball sailed past the cup without a wave and plummeted down the back slope of the green. When it finished rolling, it was some 50 feet from the hole and near the spectator area to the left of the green. He used his putter to pound the ball back onto the putting surface, but ended up with a double-bogey 6.

It didn’t matter. How many double bogeys has he endured in recent years? Many. He kept smiling and shaking hands with the gallery.

On his way down the second hole of his last Masters, Palmer embraced and kissed Mary Bea Porter-King, the former LPGA touring pro who now is a member of the U.S. Golf Association executive committee and a Masters rules official. Perhaps he should have searched for a beautiful woman on each hole, because he parred No. 2.

The pars were infrequent, however, and Palmer not only shot 48 on the front nine, but also faced the specter of failing to break 90.

Eventually, he sank an 8-foot putt on the 18th green for 89, prompting Fred Couples, like Palmer a former Masters champion, to say, “It may not seem like a big deal to make that putt, but it is. He had to be grinding it out, and I know breaking 90 was important to him.”

For fans, it was important just to see Palmer. Most didn’t care about the golf shots. “He looks great,” said a 50ish woman in a flowery dress. It was easy to get the impression she had dressed just for him.

The mood during the second round, its conclusion delayed by rain until Saturday, was even more frenetic. Spectators didn’t so much clap as they yelled, screamed and thundered. Between every green and tee, course marshals formed a wispy thin corridor through which the great man squeezed his way to the next hole. People clutched for a touch of shirt or skin.

Each spectator path became a highway of mud. Fans were slip-sliding away. Thousands of white sneakers were permanently dirtied. In the name of Arnie, it was worth it.

For Palmer, the king was more than a nickname. It was a status. After missing the 36-hole cut at the Buy.com Tour event in Louisiana, Chris Perry drove to Augusta just to see the King’s last march.

“He is a legend,” Perry said. “He turned golf into a popular sport. All of us should thank him. For me, seeing him here is something I will never forget.”

David Duval, Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Kirk Triplett also watched Palmer finish on 18.

Robert Hamilton, runner-up in the 2001 U.S. Amateur, was paired with Palmer during the first two rounds. Countering the argument that it was a sad time, Hamilton observed, “He is doing what he wants to do. He is finishing his career the way he wanted to finish it. It should be a time of celebration.”

Palmer, son of the man they called Deke, recalled his father’s advice so many years ago: “When I was a youngster, he showed me how to grip the club and told me to hit the hell out of the ball.”

He was 24 when he turned pro. He was just short of his 26th birthday when he won his first professional event, the 1955 Canadian Open. Eventually he would win 60 times on the PGA Tour, a total that does not include two British Open victories.

Palmer at 26 had one victory. Tiger Woods at 26 already has 31 PGA Tour titles (including one British Open, which is now considered an official event).

Comparing Palmer and Woods is useless. They came from different eras and reflected different philosophies. Palmer never lost the common touch. It could be argued that Woods has yet to develop it.

Palmer won those 60 titles in an 18-year period, his last victory coming at the 1973 Bob Hope. His hit-the-hell-out-of-it swing and helicopter followthrough didn’t hold up as well as the technique of Jack Nicklaus, whose 70 career victories were spread over 24 years. Woods, who first won at 20, must triumph at 45 to eclipse the Nicklaus standard (or at 50 to beat the record of Ray Floyd, whose 22 career victories came over a 29-year period).

Palmer, Nicklaus and Woods – each had an insistent father, each won the U.S. Amateur and the Masters, and each became the dominant golfer in the world. It was Palmer, though, who won the hearts of the golfing population. As shown here in Augusta, he kept those hearts, too.

When Nicklaus won the Masters in 1986 at age 46, the ground seemed to shake with applause. But Palmer’s moment was different, because it wasn’t about great golf. It was about great memories.

Palmer flared one 40 yards right of the ninth green and hit a spectator. The man was telling everyone. The red spot on his arm was a badge of honor. Nobody much cared whether Palmer got it up and down for par (he did). When the King snap-hooked one into the trees off the 11th tee and ended up with a double bogey, nobody cared. It was his final trip around Amen Corner, and the sentiment was clear: “Thank God for Arnold Palmer. Amen.”

Palmer didn’t just revive golf, he invented modern golf. When Lee Westwood called him the godfather of golf, it was out of reverence. In the 1950s, most Americans didn’t even play in the British Open. Palmer changed that, winning the title in 1961 and 1962 and firmly establishing the event as a must-play championship.

There was no waiting list for tickets at the Masters until Palmer started winning. This was acknowledged several years ago by former Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens, but paraphrased colorfully by longtime Pittsburgh Post-Gazette golf writer Marino Parascenzo.

“Before Arnold,” Parascenzo said, “they couldn’t give tickets away. Afterwards, they had to institute the lottery. Arnold made golf what it is today. It took Arnold, with his magnetism, coupled with television. As lovable as Ike (President Dwight Eisenhower) was, he had no effect on golf.”

Parascenzo recalled that Palmer once made a 12 in a tournament at Rancho Park in Los Angeles, hitting four balls out of bounds on the same hole. “Two OB right, two OB left,” Parascenzo said. “He was going to get that ball where he wanted it. He had power and presence. And that lurch of a swing of his – he just wanted to take golf by the throat.”

Even in his 70s, Palmer consistently shows up in the top five among all athletes when endorsement income is calculated. Such lists are compiled by Forbes magazine and other organizations. Palmer is estimated to earn about $20 million a year, second in golf behind Woods.

“It’s amazing when you talk about a 72-year-old athlete. It’s new territory,” said Alastair Johnston, president of IMG International, Palmer’s agent.

Leaving his news conference Thursday, after announcing his retirement, Palmer walked with his head down to keep his emotions in check. He didn’t want to recognize a familiar face and lose control. Thus, he walked past Woods without seeing him. Woods, though, stuck out an arm to stop Palmer.

There they stood, King and Future King, maintaining an eye contact that silently stated all that needed to be said. It was a touching, revealing moment of respect among two incomparable golfers.

In the end, with rounds of 89 and 85, it might be said that Palmer smelled 174 roses, smiled 174 smiles and shook at least 174 hands. The battle of five decades finally over, Arnold Palmer slipped away like the ghost of good kings past, never to be witnessed again at a major championship with a stick in his hand.

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