After much soul-searching, Arnold Palmer agreed to lead the great and the good into battle for the 2007 Masters at Augusta National. Veteran reporter Bill Elliot was on hand to witness an historic moment
ARNIE'S THE ONE
On as cool and clear a Georgia morning as one could wish to enjoy, the temperature was raised by the hot breath being expelled by several thousand throats as the Augusta National faithful paid homage to the new ceremonial starter.
Their cheers hit the air the very moment Arnold Palmer emerged from the clubhouse to take the shortest walk in golf towards the first tee. There waiting for him was the man who finally persuaded the old maestro to fill the void left by the death of Sam Snead in 2002.
Billy Payne is the new chairman of the club and it was his polite persistence that sealed the deal. He introduced Arnold eloquently... "I have had many great moments here, but none of them has given me a greater thrill than this. Arnold Palmer is back where he belongs."
When the cheers subsided Palmer, in the lightest blue of sweaters, took his familiar crouched stance and launched the drive that opened the 2007 Masters. A decent effort it was too, slightly hooked into the left rough but eminently acceptable. What was not acceptable was the female fan who sprinted across the fairway to pick up the ball.
She was swiftly invited to either hand it back or leave the premises. By then however, Palmer was walking back to the clubhouse after recording what I suppose was his best ever score at Augusta – one. Certainly, he never stopped grinning. And shortly afterwards, he never stopped talking.
"Well, I really don't have a comment except that it's a great thrill for me, and of course, an honor," said Mr. Palmer. Then, he warmed to his theme.
"I was thinking back to when I went to Wake Forest [his Alma Mater] and I used to watch the Masters and think about coming here, and whoever thought that 60 years later, here we are."
Inevitably, the questions turned to Mr. Palmer's usual timetable at such an early hour in the morning. Indeed, it sounds that on this particular occasion, he enjoyed something of a lie–in.
"I get up 5:30–6:00am every morning and the first thing I do is put the coffee on and take my dog for a nice walk. That's usually my normal morning. So this morning really wasn't any different from usual, getting–up–wise, except my dog isn't here and I didn't walk him.
"There was some excitement in the air. I did something last night [before the honorary starting] that I haven't done in a long time. I went to bed at about 10:00, 10:30, and I slept until 5:00 without moving, and I don't ever do that.
"I'm always up at least once during the night. I got up and got shaved, dressed and ready to do the thing. And there was obviously some excitement in it. Seeing what happened when they opened the gates was also quite a thrill, to see those people come in. And of course that's what it's been about for me for a long time.
"I waited to do this and thought about it for a couple of years. I felt like this was an appropriate time. I didn't want to get up and die before I did it — getting to my age, at some point you've got to think about that.
"But I have a lot of emotion for Augusta. I first came here in 1955 and shortly after that I got to know Cliff Roberts and Bob Jones. For me, all of the things that ranked in my life – my father, being in golf and then in 1958 when I won. Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States and Cliff Roberts came out and said the President wanted to play golf Monday morning.
"So that kind of kicked things off. That got the whole thing going. And through the President and Cliff, we struck up a friendship — and that friendship lasted for a lot of years and that was kind of the beginning of my life as a Tour pro.
"I am first very pleased to be a member of this club and to have the opportunities that the Masters has presented for me. Hopefully, every person who eventually plays here understands what it means and how I feel about it, and I suppose the effect it has had in my life."
One colorful postscript to Mr. Palmer's debut as honorary starter came from the controversially picaresque English pro Ian Poulter, who was on the range preparing for an early tee–off time before the first round — and went on to distinguish himself by tying for 13th.
Having watched Mr. Palmer tuning up for his one shot, Poulter remarked: "He's only got to hit one shot and there he was for 45 minutes beforehand on the range with a full bag of clubs hitting shots."
PALMER AT THE MASTERS
The King has played a record 50 times at Augusta National, a number equaled this year by his great rival Gary Player.
Next year, Mr. Palmer is expected to turn up again for the most ceremonial role in golf… only he isn't committing himself just yet to this responsibility.
Naturally, most students of Mr. Palmer's fabled career will focus on his four Masters wins – in 1958. 1960. 1962 and 1964.
In 1958, the king stumbled to a closing 73, one over par, but still went over the winning line by one shot from defending champion Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins. Two years later, he had a similarly slim margin over Ken Venturi and in 1962 he beat both Gary Player and Dow Finsterwald in a playoff.
In 1964, though, it was an entirely different story as the King ran out a rampant six–shot winner over Dave Marr and Jack Nicklaus.
Alas, that was his last major win and despite many bold subsequent attempts, he never again looked likely to snatch one of golf 's Holy Grails.
His other significant attempts at winning the Masters included 1957 (tied seventh behind Ford), 1959 (third behind Art Wall), 1961 (beaten by Gary Player following a final– green, sand–beached fiasco) and 1965 (a mere nine shots, tied with Player, in second place behind Nicklaus). Top–five finishes were also recorded in 1966 and 1967, and then, gradually, the younger men took over.
Never again did Mr. Palmer penetrate the top–10, though there were still plenty of cuts to be made.
In the long run, though, the King was in his counting house at Augusta National. And whenever he teed it up at the Masters, he generally made it count.