Arnie’s Long Shadow
by Matt Ward
AUGUSTA, GA.__ It’s hard to fathom but the 81st Masters which commences today will be the first without Arnold Palmer on hand since 1954. That was the same year Sam Snead would win the last of his three Masters titles.
Palmer passed away at 87 last year — on the eve of The Ryder Cup Matches which were dedicated to his memory and which the USA squad won for the first time since ’08.
There will be plenty of mentions this week of “The King” and rightfully so. Palmer had “it” as Gary Player, a fellow member of the legendary “Big Three” of golf declared. The “it” Player refers to is the remarkable bond Palmer had with people — all types of people. The charisma Palmer showed was not an air of invincibility but in demonstrating a human connection with all the emotions associated included. In short — Palmer was real. He was the type of guy you could envision sharing a beer with at the 19th hole. The guy you saw on the television screen was the same guy you met in person.
Arnie’s arrival on the scene provided the ideal convergence with The Masters and the emergence of spring — a reawakening after a long winter. When Palmer won his first Masters in 1958 — CBS Sports was on hand — merging backdrop with lead actor. The two were the ideal mixture television captured brilliantly under the direction of Frank Chirkinian.
Palmer was also blessed to have rivals of unquestioned ability and equal integrity. The Big Three of Arnie, Player and Jack Nicklaus were so entwined with one another. From 1958 to 1966 — with 1959 the lone exception — the three would be the only ones donning the famed green jacket as victors.
Augusta National was created for high drama by its founder Bobby Jones and architect Alister Mackenzie. Fortunately, Jones realized after the 1st Masters that the nines would need to be reversed so that the two par-5’s — the 13th and 15th — would play pivotal roles in deciding the event each year.
Arnie eschewed conservative play — the mantra “go for it” was embellished on his forehead. In 1960 he would win the first two majors of that year in thrilling fashion — birdieing the final two holes and securing his second green jacket over Ken Venturi. Just two months later — at the US Open at Cherry Hills outside of Denver — Palmer trailed by seven shots going into the final round. He fired a 65 highlighted by driving the green on the par-4 1st hole. The video showing Palmer tossing his visor after holing out at the 18th is seared in time. Those two events showed Arnie in his heyday — seizing control of events — imprinting his name as the man who played to win. The swash-buckling style — the hitch of the pants — the flick of the cigarette — before preparing to play. Arnie with his ever loving Army on the march.
Just one month after his win at the US Open Palmer headed overseas to The Open Championship held for its centennial at The Old Course at St. Andrews. Palmer nearly added that crown before losing by one stroke to winner Kel Nagle. In the two years to follow Arnie would win back-to-back Opens and in the process rejuvenate an event that had completely faded from view.
But the successes were only a part of Palmer’s appeal. The human side of Palmer also came to the forefront when difficult setbacks happened. In 1961 at Augusta Palmer was again in command — leading by one over Gary Player with just the 18th to play. A par would give Arnie not only his 3rd green jacket but become the first golfer to successfully defend one’s title. It was not to be. Palmer let his guard down — conversing with someone in the gallery he knew after leaving the tee. Arnie double-bogied the hole and Player became the first foreign born winner of the event. In the years to come — Palmer would admit that loss, along with the one he suffered in the 1966 US Open when losing a seven shot lead with nine holes to play to Billy Casper, were two that stung the most.
Arnie’s greatest feat at Augusta came in 1964 when he had total command of the entire tournament. This time Palmer could revel in the moment as he ascended the hill at the 18th. Amazingly, at the competitive age of 34 it seemed more majors would be won — but none would be forthcoming.
Palmer worn emotions on his sleeve. Pain in defeat as well as unbridled joy when winning. Television captured the drama — the ups and downs provided in equal measure. For too many years golf was seen as the game of elites played by the well-to-do crowd more stoic than human. Palmer changed the complexion of a sport in a manner never seen before. But even when suffering the cruelest of outcomes Palmer never handled himself in less than a gentlemanly manner — always carrying himself as his father Deacon had counseled many, many years earlier.
On a personal side I met Arnie on a number of occasions. His personality was always alive — no matter the company. My last time with him was at his home club — Latrobe — just outside of Pittsburgh on the eve of last year’s US Open at famed Oakmont. Palmer had his normal lunch with club regulars and close friends and the visit to meet him was spontaneous and unscheduled. Arnie was now frail in body but his spirit to engage was no less vibrant. The characteristic smile — the twinkle in the eyes — the ever present thumbs up were all there. So was his eye contact. When you met him you came away believing Arnie really listened to what you said. I realized when I left that “The King” was nearing an end and I was eternally grateful for one final moment with him.
This year’s Masters will go on but the ubiquitous presence of Palmer will be clearly present. No figure in golf history changed the sport in so many ways. Arnie’s shadow looms large. The footprints he created were made in concrete — not sand.
Arnie’s most distinguished rivals Nicklaus and Player will lead the way in hitting ceremonial tee shots indicating the ’17 Masters is underway. As the competitors each arrive at the 1st tee they will be sure to give tribute to Palmer and look up to the sky and simply say “Thank you for everything, Arnie.”
Photo Credits: PGATour.com; ESPN