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Masters 2017: Memories of Arnold Palmer resonate at Augusta National

By Gerry Dulac
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There is no tournament like the Masters, no place like the Augusta National Golf Club. History lurks through every valley, nostalgia oozes from each blade of finely manicured grass. Champions have come and gone, moments of glory and shots of ignominy have been discussed and remembered for decades.

But, through the 81-year history of what is arguably the most famous tournament in the world, the Masters has never seen anyone like Arnold Palmer. It wasn't just the four green jackets he won in a seven-year span that began in the late 1950s. Or the painful near-misses he endured on two other occasions.

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It was his magnetism, his James Dean appearance, his matador style. It was his charm in victory and his grace in defeat. Most of all, it was the way he seemed to embrace the patrons -- that's what they call them at the Masters -- and the way they loved him in return. They stalked the fairways to get a glimpse of him, and the television cameras couldn't take their lens off him.

Arnold Palmer was a presence at the Masters for 62 years -- 50 as a player, 10 as an honorary starter, two for the time in between when he wasn't sure he wanted to hit the ceremonial first tee shot. Now, for the first time since 1954, he won't be at the Masters. And his absence will create a massive ache in the collective heart of all who will be in attendance this week at Augusta National.

Palmer died in September at the age of 87, and, seven months after the golf world grappled with his passing, they will do so again at the tournament he helped transform into a global treasure.

"I will be thinking of Arnie all week," said CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz, who has been broadcasting at the Masters for 32 years and developed a special friendship with Palmer.

MORE: Arnold Palmer changed the game of golf and won the hearts of many

So much about Palmer and his popularity, his impact on the game, was forged at the Masters.

It was his play in the valleys of Augusta National in 1958, when he won his first Masters, that inspired Sports Illustrated writer Herbert Warren Wind to use the expression "Amen Corner" to describe the action on holes 11, 12 and 13. "Arnie's Army," the nickname used to describe the gallery throngs that trampled fairways to watch their hero, was born in Augusta because of the soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon who manned the leaderboards at the Masters and openly rooted for their new-found hero.

The late Frank Chirkinian, who worked on and produced Masters telecasts on CBS for 40 years, famously spoke of how the camera fell in love with Palmer during his back-nine charge in 1960. "I thought, 'Holy mackerel, who is this guy?' He absolutely fired up the screen," Chirkinian once said. "It was quite obvious this was the star. It was electrifying."

It all happened at Augusta National. Palmer's legacy budded and flowered amid the pines and valleys like the azaleas in Amen Corner. It is true the great Bobby Jones founded the Masters. But it was Latrobe's native son, the son of a groundskeeper, who made it.

"It will never be the same," former two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. "The tournament will go on and players will come and go, but there will be a void there, especially this year."

Every year he has attended the Masters since he stopped playing, Strange would go to the Firestone Cabin and have a drink with Palmer and a couple Augusta members, John Harris and Bev Dolan. Strange said he would go three nights in a row and sit in the corner and listen to them tell stories and "solve the world's problems." He called it the highlight of his week.

Strange has always shared a special bond with Palmer. He went to Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer Scholarship established by the King at his alma mater.

"I grew up with Arnold Palmer in my household and as everybody did," Strange said on a conference call last week. "And then the first time I played the Masters was in '75. I went down there and saw really what Arnie's Army and Arnold Palmer and the people were all about. It was the first time I had ever seen him in his world. And it was spectacular. There was a connection there between Arnold and the people and the people and Arnold that was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life before and since. The way he reacted to them ... and them to him was something special.

"And even last year, when he wasn't doing well, and just for him to make the effort to go and be a part of it, something he loved so dearly, it showed me that it really was a connection there over the years and that they truly loved each other."

Palmer was the Masters. He was the first player to win the green jacket four times, and he did it every other year, beginning in 1958. Jack Nicklaus would eventually break his record with six Masters victories and Tiger Woods would eventually tie him with four. But, for those seven years, Palmer made the Masters what it is today.

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Imagine what it could have been.

In 1959, he was the defending champion and tied for the lead after three rounds. But, much like what happened to Jordan Spieth last year, Palmer made a triple-bogey at the par-3 12th and finished third, two shots behind winner Art Wall Jr., who started the day six shots behind Palmer.

In 1961, Palmer was poised to become the tournament's first repeat winner, needing only a par at the 72nd to give him a one-shot victory over Gary Player. As he marched to his tee shot in the fairway, he was so sure he was going to win he went over to get a congratulatory hand shake from an old friend, George Low, in the gallery.

But Palmer put his approach shot in the bunker, bladed his next shot across the green and made double bogey. He lost by one -- one of the greatest final-hole collapses in Masters history.

"I remember as a kid, really the first time you ever saw golf on TV, or at least I did, was Arnold," said former two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North. "That changed the way we looked at our sport. The last year he played there, I'm one of those guys that I used to go out on Thursday morning and love watching the guys hit those first tee shots. That was always special. And there's going to be a big empty spot at the Masters this year because Arnold's not there. But he's done so much to make it the event that it is."

The day began with people starting to stack like pancakes under the big oak near the clubhouse at Augusta National. And it began 20 minutes before the King even made his grand entrance.

More than five hours later, with the sun casting long shadows and filtering softly through the Georgia pines, it ended, right there at the 18th green, where so many of Arnold Palmer's greatest moments occurred. At that moment, the Masters tuna-mint -- that's how they pronounce it here -- changed forever.

The gallery, more than 25 deep -- deeper than the last time everyone thought he had made his final appearance at the Masters -- stood and clapped and hollered his name while he made his way to the final green. And, dressed in a bright red shirt, his white hair glistening in the afternoon sun, Arnold Palmer, the king of golf, turned and waved to the adoring masses.

Goodbye. For good.

"I'm through. ... I've had it. ... I'm done," Palmer said, managing a smile. "Cooked. Washed up. Finished. Whatever you want to say."

Those words appeared in the April 10, 2004, edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, describing the scene that encompassed Palmer's final competitive appearance at the Masters. It was the 50th and final time Palmer would play in the Masters, a record that five years later was surpassed by his good friend, Gary Player, who played in 52.

In 2007, Palmer would return to serve as the ceremonial honorary starter for the tournament, a role he wasn't always certain he wanted to perform. For three years, he did it by himself. In 2010, he was joined by his pal and long-time rival Jack Nicklaus. Two years later, Player joined them on the first tee, reuniting golf's "Big Three" for maybe the most tradition-rich opening moment in sports.

Last year, it all began to change.

A sense of foreboding hung around the clubhouse in the early morning, like dew dripping off the dogwood, waiting for the King to make what many feared would be his last entrance. When he emerged from the clubhouse, Palmer was helped into a golf cart and driven to the first tee, a procession of family members and friends, including Nicklaus and Player, walking behind him in what was almost like a funeral procession. Unsteady on his feet, Palmer did not hit a tee shot, watching from the cart while his former rivals did. A day earlier, Nicklaus asked Palmer if he wanted to merely putt a ball off the first tee, just to give the rows of fans a chance to see him do something. Palmer declined.

"For him not to be well enough to hit the opening tee shot with Jack and Gary broke my heart," said former LPGA Tour star Nancy Lopez, who had become friends with Palmer over the years. "He's so proud, and I could see it was killing him to be sitting there watching. I went to hug him, and that was the first time he didn't stand up to give me a hug. So I kind of knew. ... He got choked up talking about his fans. And thinking of that makes me cry. The reason he always gave so much of himself to them was because he loved them."

Before the final round on Sunday, CBS will air a one-hour special called "Jim Nantz Remembers the Masters: Arnold Palmer -- His Last Visit to the Masters," in which Nantz will show for the first time the last interview ever recorded with the King. It occurred not long after that final honorary tee shot.

Nantz and Palmer had talked about doing the interview weeks earlier and said they wouldn't decide until that Thursday morning to see if Palmer was up for the taping.

"I met him in the clubhouse after the shot and we're sitting around a table and he looked at me and said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'It's totally up to you,'" Nantz said. "And he looked at me and gave me that Arnie's thumbs-up and said, 'Let's do it.'

"So we got the Butler Cabin ready to go and got Arnold to the cabin and we made it very clear if it was a struggle or the words wouldn't come out cleanly we'd stop and no one would ever see it.

"When the lights went on and the first question was about showing up here in 1955, it was like turning back the clock. You could see the look on his face. When the lights came on, Arnold was on."

Nantz called it a day he will never forget.

"He never returned," Nantz said. "That was his last visit to the Masters."

This article is written by Gerry Dulac from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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