AUGUSTA, Ga. — When he stood on the tee at the final hole of the 1964 Masters, holding a five-shot lead, Arnold Palmer turned to his friend and playing partner Dave Marr and asked him if there was anything he could do to help.
Marr turned to Palmer and said, “Make 9.”
Palmer didn’t listen. He birdied the final hole at the Augusta National Golf Club to win the Masters by six shots over Marr and Jack Nicklaus. For a player who never had an easy time winning major titles, Palmer finally got to enjoy a celebratory walk up the 18th fairway.
“One thing that was disappointing in my existence here was that I won three times before and it was a squeaker every time,” Palmer said. “I would walk up 18 and people thought I was looking at them. I was scared to look at them. The one thing I wanted to do was walk up 18 feeling comfortable.”
Palmer became the first four-time Masters champion in history with his wire-to-wire victory. Not only was it the last time he would win a green jacket, but it also was the last of his seven major victories.
Palmer would continue to win regularly on the PGA Tour — he had 19 more victories after the 1964 Masters — but he would never win another major title.
“I played some of the best golf I ever played in major championships after the ’64 Masters,” Palmer said Tuesday before attending the champions dinner at the Augusta National clubhouse. “The Open a couple times; matter of fact, three or four times, and didn’t win; the PGA once or twice. It was disappointing. I played good here a few times, and my short game didn’t hold up to the standards that I had set up for myself.”
At the time, nobody could possibly conceive that it would be the last time Palmer would win a major championship. He was 34 and at the top of his game, winning approximately one of every three majors.
His seven major titles tied him with Harry Vardon, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Sam Snead. Two more and he would tie Ben Hogan.
But that was it. On the 50th anniversary of his final major title, Palmer reflected on what happened.
“I must say that in theory, I kind of figured out why those things happened to a degree, and I looked at it more as a psychological downfall as anything,” Palmer said. “When I was winning the Open at Cherry Hills, it had something to do with the fact that I got over a hump. I climbed over the hill, and I satisfied some of the deep desires and ambitions that I had.
Palmer would come close again, finishing second to Nicklaus in the 1965 Masters and fourth in 1966 and 1967. At the 1966 U.S. Open, he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine and lost in a playoff to Billy Casper at the Olympic Club. He even had near-misses at the 1964 and 1968 PGA Championship, the one major to elude him.
But his victory 50 years ago at the Masters will stand as the last hurrah, the final coronation, for Latrobe’s favorite son.
“I use the word psychological because it may have caused a letdown more than I had anticipated,” Palmer said. “Had I had the same driving desire to win as before, I might have won a few more Masters or a few more Opens or a couple PGAs, who knows. Psychologically, it affected me.”
For the first time in 20 years, four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods is not in the field, and his absence will be missed by two of the top players in the world.
“It’s a weird feeling not having him here, isn’t it?” said three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson. “He’s been such a mainstay in professional golf and in the majors. It’s awkward to not have him here. I hope he gets back soon. As much as I want to win and I know how great he is and tough to beat, it makes it special when he’s in the field and you’re able to win.”
“You know, having Tiger in a tournament definitely creates more buzz, more of an atmosphere,” said two-time major champion Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, the No. 2 player in the world. “You know where he is on the course just by the crowd and the gallery that follows him.”
Then McIlroy added: “You know, as a player, it doesn’t really make any difference. As a fan, it’s always better to have him in the golf tournament. But no matter who is in contention or who is going to win this week, the Masters always provides a great finish, regardless of who is there”
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose is no stranger to the top of the leader board at the Masters. Unfortunately, most of those appearances have come in the early rounds, not when it really mattered.
But, after winning the 2013 U.S. Open for his first major title at Merion, Rose comes to the Augusta National with a little different perspective.
Rose, 33, of England, is among of number of European hopefuls trying to end a 14-year drought at Augusta National that hasn’t seen a player from Europe win the green jacket since Spain’s Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999. Olazabal’s victory was the culmination of a dominating stretch in which Europe won eight Masters titles in a 12-year period.
“I think you do come in here looking at increasing your tally of major championships, not just searching for your first one, but to feel like you can go on in your career to win multiple majors and knock off the next one you haven’t won,” said Rose, who will be paired with the past two British Open champs, Mickelson and Ernie Els, in the first two rounds. “Knowing you’ve won a major championship and knowing you’ve faced those emotions before and you’ve come through, it’s a huge benefit.”
Rose has never finished better than tied for fifth in eight Masters appearances, but he has been the leader or co-leader on four separate occasions, including the first-round leader in 2004, 2007 and 2008. However, he has never been able to sustain his quick leaps on the leader board.
The only exception was in 2007 when he was second after three rounds, only to finish fifth behind Zach Johnson.
“It’s a golf course I’ve played well and played some great rounds on,” Rose said. “The course suits my eye … really suits me. But, at the same time, I know it suits a lot of players. It suits Rory [McIlroy], it suits Phil [Mickelson], it suits Dustin Johnson, it suits Keegan Bradley, obviously Adam Scott. A lot of guys can play well around this tournament, but at least I don’t come in here with any disadvantage."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac.