Gerry Dulac: The Masters remembers Arnold Palmer with emotional tradition
April 6, 2017 3:55 PM
Chris Carlson/Associated Press
Jack Nicklaus looks up to the sky to honor Arnold Palmer before hitting an honorary first tee shot for the ceremonial start of the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday in Augusta, Ga.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Shortly after 7:15 a.m., with the morning sun gently creeping over the clubhouse and filtering through the branches of the iconic oak tree, patrons began scurrying around the lawn at Augusta National Golf Club, hoping to get as close as possible to the first tee.
They were positioning themselves as they always do on the opening day of the Masters, wanting to see one of the grandest traditions in golf. They had come to see two of the greatest players in history, including the greatest champion of them all, hit the ceremonial first tee shots. But, on this day, they had also come for the person they couldn’t see.
For the first time in 62 years, Arnold Palmer was not on the property at Augusta National, not as a player, not as an honorary starter, not even as a member.
His green jacket, one of four he won in a seven-year span beginning in 1958, was placed on a white lawn chair in the middle of the first tee, as though he were watching his old pals, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, start the tournament in his honor. Billy Payne, the Masters chairman, escorted Palmer’s widow, Kit, to the tee and referred to the emotion of the moment as “a day we all knew would come.” But that didn’t make it any less comforting for him or any of the thousands who ringed the first tee on a brisk Thursday morning to watch the Masters start without the King on the first tee for the first time since 2007.
More than any player who had come before him or even after, including Nicklaus, who won the tournament a record six times, Palmer was the Masters. And now, for the first time since 1954, only the memory of his presence remained.
It was best honored by the Golden Bear himself, who, after teeing his ball in the pristinely manicured tee box, took off his cap, looked to the heavens and waved it to his departed friend. Wiping a tear from each eye, Nicklaus then striped a ball down the first fairway, just a pinch past Player, to officially start the 81st version of the tournament Palmer popularized with his style, grace and charm.
“Arnold came along at a time, he won in ‘58, won in ‘60, ‘62, ‘64, and it was a time television was getting started,” Nicklaus would say later. “It was a time that the popularity of the game was really stimulated by Arnold. It was a time when, you know, the Masters was just sort of getting its feet wet with what’s going on in the golfing world.
“Arnold was sort of the guy that made that popular and took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf.”
Player, who won the Masters three times, was on the practice range at 6:30 a.m. — “I wasn’t out of bed yet,” Nicklaus said, laughing — and marveled at the amount of people streaming toward the entrance that time of morning. Later, after witnessing the amount of people stacked around the first tee and watching from the clubhouse lawn, Player was reminded why the nickname affixed to Palmer’s gallery throngs — Arnie’s Army — was born in Augusta.
“This was typical of what happened,” Player said. “He had his Army. It was not easy playing with him when he had the Army and they were screaming and rushing off the green before you finished, but one had to get accustomed to that. That was his Army, it really was his Army.”
From 1958 to 1966, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player — golf’s “Big Three” — combined to win eight green jackets in that nine-year stretch. Palmer never won another after 1964, but the trio combined to win 13 Masters in all. Even though Player said he didn’t think there were ever three better players in the same era than Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson, history and Masters patrons would beg to differ.
“We came along and added to [the Masters growth], but I think it was Arnold who took it to that,” Nicklaus said. “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. Arnold put the Masters on the map and with his rise and his popularity, the Masters rose the same. I think they were both very good for each other and very synonymous with each other.”
After the opening ceremony, Nicklaus and Player made their way to the interview room in the lavish new media center, each wearing their green jacket with a button that said, “I Am a Member of Arnie’s Army, Est. 1959.” Those commemorative buttons were passed out to all patrons who attended the opening round.
“He would have dropped over if he had seen one on Gary and me,” Nicklaus said.
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