AUGUSTA, Ga. – They came in droves to the first tee. Arnie’s Army gathered for an emotional opening to the 81st Masters, the first since Arnold Palmer’s passing. Chairman Billy Payne escorted Palmer’s widow, Kit, to the first tee where he gently laid Palmer’s green jacket on an empty white chair.
“As he would walk to this very tee for this ceremony we would point and shout above the cheers to our kids and grandkids,” Payne told the crowd, “‘Look look, it’s Arnold Palmer!’ And the kids would radiate smiles because they knew they were seeing a legend.
And you know what? He would always smile back. That’s the Arnold Palmer we remember, we miss and we’ll forever love.”
Payne called for a moment of silence and patrons lifted off their caps and bowed their heads in reverence to the man known simply as “The King.” Rickie Fowler, William McGirt and amateur Brad Dalke were on hand to pay tribute to the game’s giants.
Player choked back tears thinking of the friend he’d lost and the warmth emanating from the crowd on a brisk spring morning. He thought back to last year, when Palmer, struggling to walk and too weak to hit a tee shot, mustered the strength to lift himself up off that white chair on the first tee to give the crowd a little wave. It was a touching moment for Player, and the memory flooding back as he looked at the empty chair Thursday morning.
“There will be other Big Threes,” Player said. “But I don’t know if you’ll ever have another Big Three that will live together like we did.”
Nicklaus joked that he hadn’t yet gotten out of bed when he saw Player on television warming up on the range at 6:30 a.m. While Nicklaus undoubtedly clipped Player on their ceremonial opening drives, the Black Knight called it a tie.
When asked what Palmer would’ve made of the classy green and white buttons patrons received at the gates that declared “I am a member of Arnie’s Army,” Nicklaus quipped, “He would have dropped over if he had seen one on Gary and me.”
They’ve always been a needling trio, at the ready to give one another grief over a bad round or who had the better record.
Just the other night, Player said, they got into a conversation about what it takes to be classified in golf as a superstar. Player said he figured a player would need at least six majors to earn such a distinction.
Nicklaus, knowing Player had nine, set the bar at 10.
Their respect for one another, however, runs as deep at their competitive spirit.
Nicklaus, for example, was quick to credit Palmer as the player who put the Masters on the map.
“We came along and added to that,” said Nicklaus, “but I think it was Arnold who took it to that. … Yes the Masters made Arnold in many ways because of his wins in ’58, ’60, ’62 and ’64; but the other way around, I think Arnold made the Masters.”