When I covered the Masters last April it was tough seeing Arnold Palmer unable to participate at the ceremonial first-tee event on Thursday morning. He made it out for some photos and watched from a chair at Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player got the tournament started.
Arnie still had the full devotion of the crowd, however, just as he did in 2004 when he played his 50th and final Masters. I had the privilege of following him around that Friday on his way to a missed cut, scrambling around outside the ropes with the rest of the Army and sometimes getting close enough to hear The King say something to one of his smiling, waving fans.
It was a great afternoon spent in the company of a great and gracious man. Thought you might enjoy reliving it, too. Here’s the reprint of my column from The Palm Beach Post of April 10, 2004.
ARNIE TAKES ARMY ON FINAL, SENTIMENTAL MARCH
By Dave George, Palm Beach Post columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Some got a pat on the shoulder, others a handshake and just about everybody left Augusta National with a story about how Arnie looked in their direction and winked or smiled or gave the thumbs-up signal, just for them.
Only Bill Eastwood of Greensboro, N.C., took home an actual physical artifact from the historic final round of Arnold Palmer’s 50th consecutive Masters. Eastwood’s prize was a healthy divot of turf and mud that Arnie carved from a spot where no golf ball has any business being. Eastwood put the earthy blob in a potato chip bag for safekeeping, telling those around him in the sitting area well right of the 11th green that “I could have sold this on eBay.”
It was a comment that drew little laughter from the assembled company of Arnie’s Army, any one of whom would gladly have accepted a purple welt, or a purple heart, if only the King’s ball could have caromed off their body and onto the putting surface.
We’re talking about a golfer who hasn’t won the Masters since 1964, back in the days of John and Paul and George and Ringo, a man who hasn’t made the cut at Augusta since 1983, Dan Marino’s rookie season in the NFL.
To be 74 and still dragging a multitude of fans up and down the hills and through the pine thickets and over the portals of yesteryear is a phenomenal accomplishment.
To have them care so much that you’re never going to do it again, that’s a bond much tougher to break than par.
“I guess it’s more difficult for me because I’m sort of a sentimental slob,” said Palmer, who needed quite some time to get that sentence out. The emotion welling up within him during a post-round TV interview often soaked his words in sadness and caused his throat to catch.
Out on the course, though, that was a different matter. The King’s slow procession toward a second consecutive 84 was accomplished, at least half of the time, within arm’s reach of the gallery ropes. Palmer clearly wanted it that way. He needed the energy of his fans to make it up some of those long and unyielding Augusta National inclines.
They called to him all day, with greeting-card sonnets like “Thank you, Arnie,” and “Thanks for the memories,” and “We love you, Arnie.” Every now and then, too, somebody shot him a zinger, as one good friend might to another, and got in return a comeback line delivered in good cheer.
“These hills are a little steeper than they were 50 years ago, huh, Arnie?” came a voice from a snow-topped gentleman trudging outside the ropes on the long slog up No. 8. “Just a tad,” Palmer shot back, holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.
Never did he want it to end like this, he’d have to admit, because never did Arnie want it to end at all.
“I looked at the galleries and there were so many people out there I recognized, and some people who would remind me that they had been with me for the whole 50 years,” he said.
“That’s part of the reason, I suppose, that I have played as long as I have. My competitive attitude, though it hasn’t shown up much lately, it’s still there.”
Those of us privileged to walk the final 18 with Arnie saw it Friday, and more than once. Here’s a personal favorite.
Arnie is tired, and looks it, as he walks over to the No. 6 tee and plops on a wooden bench. The round has started badly, with missed greens and short drives and three bogeys in the first five holes. There’s a little time before the par-3 green ahead of them clears so Palmer rolls up his pant legs, pulls down his socks and calls for 16-year-old Sam Saunders, his grandson and handpicked caddy for this special event, to pull the Aspercreme from a zippered pocket in the golf bag.
It’s his shins that are killing him, and that’s where Palmer applies the cream, liberally.
A sign of age, yet the hundreds of people staring at their hero choose not to comment, even in whispers, even among themselves.
Arnold eventually sticks his tee in the ground and prepares to play, but just then, down and to the right of the elevated No. 6 tee, a great roar of appreciation goes up for the arrival of another legend, Jack Nicklaus, at the nearby 16th green. If Arnie had stopped and looked up, he could have watched his old friend and 1960s rival smiling and waving to the crowd.
But Arnie doesn’t stop. He swings right through the sound of thousands cheering the Golden Bear and sends toward the green a shot for the ages. The ball covers the 180 yards in the space of about five accelerated hearbeats and stops 6 feet from the cup.
Palmer gives the crowd a courtly half-bow and answers the hallelujahs with a neon smile.
Then he steps over to the ropes and says to a startled spectator, just loud enough for that one man to hear it and no one else, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.”
Lee Trevino would have shouted that line at bullhorn volume and thrown his head back in a howl of laughter. He is one of golf’s great showmen. Palmer, however, isn’t the sort of performer who has to be “on” to entertain.
Friday he never hitched his pants, unless it was to squat down to stick his tee in the ground or pull his ball from the cup. He never drained a long birdie putt, either. There were only seven pars in his round, and a closing bogey on 18. What a final flourish it would have been had that last par putt dropped. I’d say that it looked to be about 5 feet to me but it was tough enough just catching a glimpse of Arnie’s red shirt and Bay Hill visor through the heads and shoulders of the people crowded around that green.
“C’mon, Arnie, c’mon, Arnie,” everyone seemed to whisper as he took the putter back, as if a fifth Masters title were riding on it. This is the Army of today, no different than the very first one right here at Augusta National. It was 1958 and some soldiers on leave from Augusta’s Fort Gordon worked the Masters scoreboards with something less than absolute objectivity. Holding up signs announcing the presence of “Arnie’s Army,” they eventually caused Cliff Roberts and the Masters committee to ban signs at future tournaments.
If Palmer was daydreaming about any of that Friday, he quickly snapped back to attention while crossing through a ditch down in Amen Corner. A 5-foot snake, as black as a water moccasin and thus presumed to be poisonous, was right in front of his feet.
“If I felt a little tired,” said Arnie, “I didn’t then. I came out of there and I was flying.”
Later, walking up No. 14, Palmer’s fiancee, Kit Gawthrop, met him in a crosswalk across the fairway with a few encouraging words and a gentle push in the back toward the end of this epic round. Soon thereafter he was coming up the 18th fairway to the most heartfelt ovation of his life. Arnie realized at that moment his shins weren’t hurting. Not in the least.
Magical, this farewell lap through the magnolias, exactly the sort of thing that Nicklaus deserves one day. Here’s hoping that his talk Friday afternoon of never playing the Masters again was just the fleeting disgust of a pair of 75s talking.
Golf is a game made for giants, and there’s no better place to appreciate them than here among Southern pines that have been here a century, and ghosts that never will leave.
Second: 2 (1961-T, 1965-T)
Third: 1 (1959)
Fourth: 2 (1966-T, 1967)
Seventh: 1 (1957-T)
Ninth: 1 (1963-T)
Tenth: 1 (1955-T)
Other: 13 times
Missed cut: 25 times