Most people already came with memories about Arnold Palmer. Some, though, now have a first one to cherish. As they stood ten-deep around the first tee on a chilly Georgia morning, a young boy was manoeuvred to the front. “You’ve got to see this,” said one patron moving aside to make way for him. Shortly afterwards, with Palmer’s green jacket draped over a chair on the first tee, he witnessed a fitting tribute to “The King” at the first ceremonial start to the Masters since the four-time champion passed away at the age of 87 last September.
With spectators wearing commemorative “Arnie’s Army” badges that had been handed out coming through the gates, Palmer’s widow, Kit, was accompanied by Billy Payne, the Augusta National chairman, to the tee, where Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player had arrived minutes before to warm applause. “Welcome one more time to Arnie’s Army,” said Payne. “This is a wonderful but, in one respect, difficult day. For the first time in decades someone is obviously missing. The unbearable sadness about that is surpassed only by the level of affection. He was more than the King and it hurts so bad that he is not here today.”
Palmer, the man who transformed golf, won for the first time here in 1958 before repeating the feat in 1960, 1962 and 1964. He had acted as an honorary starter since 2007, although he had been unable to hit a shot last year due to a shoulder problem.
“Despite all his fame and fortune, he always had time for all of us,” added Payne, his voiced thick with emotion. “Kids used to smile seeing a legend and he would always smile back. Despite all his fame and fortune, his graciousness never changed.”
Rickie Fowler was among those around the tee during a moment of silence. “It will be our own personal tribute to a wonderful man,” said Payne, before introducing Nicklaus and Player, remarking the role of honorary starters had been left “in the hands of great friends” of Palmer.
It was Nicklaus, pictured below, a record six-time Masters champion, who probably delivered the main memory the young boy will cherish forever. Before hitting his shot, he took off his cap, raised it up in the air and looked skywards as he did so. It was his way of acknowledging that Palmer would have been looking down on the occasion. With a smile, of course.
“It was done very nicely and in good taste,” said Nicklaus of the ceremony, which, Player revealed, had left him “choking” back tears. He said that he’d found himself drifting back 12 months, when Palmer had watched the pair tee off from a chair. “He gave a little wave, and I could see him doing it in that chair today. It’s funny how things come back to your mind,” said Player.
Not that it really mattered on this particular occasion, Nicklaus claimed the bragging rights for the first time in three years by outdriving the South African by five yards. “Ouch,” joked Nicklaus after his practice swing, before adding: “Here goes nothing.” Helped by Rory McIlroy, however, the 14-time major winner probably surprised even himself with a peach. McIlroy had revealed earlier that he had helped to adjust Nicklaus’ driver the day before when the pair met at The Bear’s Club in Florida.
“I was quite happy with that,” said Nicklaus of his effort. “The official word was that it was a little past, but Gary’s claiming a tie. But it’s okay. It doesn’t make any difference one way or the other.” This time was all about an absent friend. A very dear one.