Palmer will make 50th and final trip
The golfing legend won his first Masters title in 1958.
By DOUG FERGUSON
All it took was one round of golf for Brad Faxon to discover the magic of Arnold Palmer.
They were paired together for the first time 20 years ago at The Players Championship, a 22-year-old in his first full season on the PGA Tour playing with the man responsible for what golf had become.
"He said one thing to me I'll never forget," Faxon said. "He said, 'The key out here is to look everybody in the eye, to make eye contract.' He was talking about the fans."
A guy who spends a half-century of golf putting people first is bound to make a few friends.
Arnie had a whole army of them.
The troops will gather at Augusta National again this year to bid farewell to Palmer, who is playing his 50th consecutive -- and final -- Masters.
"It's going to be exciting for me," Palmer said. "And it's going to be somewhat sentimental. It's kind of an opportunity to say goodbye to all of the fans who have been so supportive over the last 50 years, and have been the reason that I have played as long as I have."
Gene Sarazen hit the shot that put the Masters on the map. Jack Nicklaus has more green jackets. Tiger Woods is behind the exponential growth in prize money.
Simply the king
Palmer was simply the king.
"I remember waking up when I was 5 or 6 years old, and waiting for the paperboy at 5 in the morning to drop off the paper so I could see how Arnie did at the Masters," Jeff Sluman said. "I would coming running into the kitchen and yell, 'Arnie shot 68!' "
This is the 40th anniversary of Palmer's fourth Masters, the last of his seven professional majors.
Palmer hasn't made the cut since 1983. That was also the last time he broke par at Augusta National.
None of it matters.
No one cares about the score, only that he plays.
"Every time Arnie plays a round, it's like a celebration," Faxon said. "I'm sure it's getting old for Arnie because he's not competitive like he used to be. But nobody enjoys doing it like him. I think it's awesome."
For Palmer, it has always been about the fans.
He was asked recently for his fondest memories of the Masters. It wasn't his first trip down Magnolia Lane, the jokes told during the Champions Dinner or any of his four victories.
Arnie appreciated fans
"The fans. The people," Palmer said with that twinkle in his eye. "Hell, I know them all by name. They'd call me at home most of the year, see if I was going to play."
Palmer played his first Masters in 1955 as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, the kid from Latrobe, Pa., with strength rippling through his sweater and pants he always hitched before big shots.
His first Masters victory remains one of the most pivotal moments in golf.
Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, television was just starting to discover golf, and a group of soldiers from nearby Ford Gordon were manning the scoreboards as Palmer swung from the heels and charged into the lead in the 1958 Masters.
"They held up signs about Arnie's Army," Palmer recalled. "I didn't know where they were from and where they got the idea. It was just the fact that they were in the Army. They thought that was pretty clever."
Arnie's Army was born, and golf's first popularity boom was under way.
With each green jacket, the legend grew.
Birdied final two holes in 1960
He won the 1960 Masters with a 30-foot birdie on the 17th and a 6-foot birdie on the 18th to beat Ken Venturi by one shot. It took 38 years before another player birdied the final two holes to win the Masters.
Equally dramatic was Palmer's victory in 1962, when he chipped in for birdie on the 16th, holed a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 17 and then parred the final hole to get into an 18-hole playoff. Palmer won the next day over Gary Player and his good friend, Dow Finsterwald.
"I remember that chip-in on 16 from television," Tom Watson said. "He was my hero. And Jack [Nicklaus] was the villain, darn right. To see him play his last Masters is going to be very special, very passionate to a lot of people."
Nicklaus won his first Masters the following year, but Palmer responded with his most dominant victory at Augusta National, winning by six shots in 1964 over Nicklaus and Dave Marr.
"I remember Arnold Palmer in the '60s, when I first started playing golf," Nick Price said. "The Masters was the best tournament, and Arnold was the king. One of these days, he's not going to play. And it's going to leave a huge hole. We have him to thank -- and the people of Augusta have him to thank -- for where the tournament and modern golf is today."