Apologies for taking a morbid tone, but it could easily have been the last time we see the great man here. At 86, Arnold Palmer’s health is deteriorating. It was why the local rag here, the Augusta Chronicle, effectively issued a rallying call to “Arnie’s Army” on the morning of the 80th Masters.
In his role as one of the event’s honorary starters, the four-time winner was unable to join Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in hitting a shot on this occasion. Instead, he nestled into a seat to watch his two great friends perform the duty. Emotion filled the Augusta air.
Clearly shocked by Palmer’s frailness, one voice was heard saying: “86 is old!” “But he’s great, though,” replied another, leaving the original one to admit: “One of a kind”.
Chairman Billy Payne’s introduction said it all. “Not driving this year but forever a part of The Masters tradition, please join me in a salute and a heartfelt welcome to Mr Arnold Palmer.” It got a thumbs up from the seven-time major winner as he rose to to the applause. He got a hug from Player and a handshake from Nicklaus. The respect and admiration this trio have for each other is quite extraordinary.
Later, Nicklaus revealed he’d try to encourage Palmer to hit some sort of shot, even a chip or a putt. Worries about his balance, though, led the oldest of the sport’s three statesmen, reluctantly, to settle for a spectating role.
“I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and I think that was just fine,” said Nicklaus, the game’s greatest player.
“To come here today and to be on the tee with Arnold being a part of us, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass,” added Player. “But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in respect.”