Nobody saw the end coming, not even Arnold Palmer himself.
Though he'd last played in the U.S. Open in 1994 and the British
Open in '95, Palmer expected to participate in the Masters
forever. That was the Augusta tradition, that former
champions--Palmer won the tournament four times--took part until
they felt they no longer could. At the British Senior Open last
July, after another round much visited by the bogeyman, Palmer
was asked if he was ready to give up the game. "Give it up?" he
said. "I'm getting close. I'll always play occasionally. I'll
always play the Masters."
This is an article from the April 22, 2002 issue
That was before the unprecedented letters went out to three
former winners--Doug Ford (1957), Gay Brewer ('67) and Billy
Casper ('70)--urging them to call it a day. Come to the champions
dinner, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson wrote, participate in the
par-3 tournament, but step aside for the tournament itself. It
also was before Palmer had played the elongated, by 300 yards,
Augusta National course, on which the opening and closing par-4s
had become unreachable for him even with his best drive and a
three-wood. In this year's opening round he missed even 5s by a
stroke, shooting a 17-over-par 89, the highest score in the field
by seven shots.
Until this year it didn't matter what the grand masters shot at
Augusta. It most certainly didn't matter what Palmer scored. But
when he began last Thursday with two good shots and still made a
double bogey, he knew he was playing in his last Masters. He
finished the 18, came into the press tent and told reporters that
the next round of the 2002 Masters would be his last in a major.
"I don't want to get a letter," he said.
Like all good jokes, this one was rooted in truth. Johnson's
letters had killed a tradition, and that's what chased off
Palmer. Nothing else could. He played in 1997, nine weeks after
prostate surgery. He played in 2000, five months after his wife,
Winnie, died. In those years and others, he knew he wasn't going
to be competitive, but he wanted to feel the spectators'
adulation, and he wanted the spectators to see his appreciation.
The wins had come a long time ago. He earned the green jacket in
1958 and '60, when the president was Augusta member and friend
Dwight Eisenhower. He won in '62, when John Kennedy, loved by the
camera as much as Palmer, was in office. He won in '64, five
months after JFK's assassination. He played when Augusta National
had no black members and when it had enough that nobody paid much
attention anymore. He played in 48 straight Masters. Two score
and eight years brings a lot of change, to a man and to his
After his 89, Palmer played 12 holes on Friday before storms
halted play. It was a day when he was, once again and for the
final time, the most important golfer on the course. The round,
wistful and slow, was extended through a rainy Georgia night
straight into a showery morning. Early on Saturday, on the soggy
practice tee, two golfers launched shots, one after another.
There they were, Palmer and Tiger Woods, side by side, preparing
to play. The two shook hands and chatted. Woods savored the
moment. He values the game's little shots, and little moments,
too. In his first Masters, as a 19-year-old amateur in 1995,
Woods played a Wednesday practice round with Palmer and Jack
Nicklaus. On the 18th green Palmer put his arm around the kid
and said, "Let's go play the par-3 course." They've been buddies
ever since. Last week they again played together in the par-3
tournament. "Someday I'll tell my grandkids that I played with
the great Arnold Palmer--even though it was on the par-3
course--in his last Masters," Woods said.
Nicklaus, 62, understood how brutal the long, wet course could
be. Palmer and Nicklaus are very different men. Nicklaus, six
times a winner at Augusta, is a hyperrealist. Unfamiliar with the
lengthened course, and with his back ailing and his game rusty,
he knew he'd struggle to shoot in the mid-70s. That's not
Nicklaus. "I didn't want to display what I've got going on this
course," he said after announcing that he would not be playing in
this year's Masters. He made the right decision. It was a
gruesome week for 50-and-over former winners. Tom Watson opened
with a 71 but followed with a 76 to make the cut on the number.
(He finished 40th.) Fuzzy Zoeller went 75-77. Tommy Aaron shot a
79 and a 78, good scores. Ben Crenshaw carded an 81-77. Gary
Player, playing amazingly well at 66, shot 80-78. Charlie Coody:
82-84. Who gets the next letter?
Gay Brewer, who lost the 1966 Masters in a playoff that included
Nicklaus before winning the following year, took his letter hard.
He chose not to come to Augusta and remained incommunicado
throughout the week. Friends reported that he was devastated by
Johnson's note. "Augusta National and the Masters are every bit
as important to Gay as they are to Arnold Palmer," said his
friend and former caddie, Bob Boring. "Gay was defined by that
'67 Masters." Over the years Brewer has saved boxes of Masters
memorabilia. One item is a final-day pairing sheet from '67,
signed by Clifford Roberts and Bobby Jones, cofounders of Augusta
National and the Masters. The inscription reads, "It is a real
pleasure, Gay, to renew congratulations to you."
Asked if he had any regrets about the way he handled the letters,
Johnson had a terse answer: "I don't look back." By next year, he
said, the tournament will have a formal policy concerning who
plays and who doesn't. Johnson wants to get rid of the less
capable old-timers because they make the Masters less competitive
than it might be.
Last week Player was pushing the idea of a one-day senior event,
on Tuesday morning of Masters week, for former winners who are no
longer factors in the main tournament. Such a Grand Masters,
Player said, would keep the old champions in front of the
galleries. As Player's idea made the rounds, some observers noted
that the first two Senior PGA Championships were played at
Augusta National in 1937 and '38, and that Jones was instrumental
in making that happen. Nicklaus saw merit in the idea; Palmer did
not. Neither did Johnson, meaning it's not going to happen in the
Saturday afternoon belonged to Woods and his sizzling 66, but
Saturday morning belonged to Palmer, even though he was putting
the finishing touches on an 85. He wore black-and-white shoes,
blue pants and a pink shirt. No man has ever worn pink as well as
Palmer. With his white hair and slow gait and languid waves to
the gallery, he looked 72 and proud of it.
After pushing his second shot on 18 way right, Palmer made a
final climb up the home hole, trudging almost underneath the
giant leader board that had carried his name so many times in the
1950s and '60s and '70s. After he quickly played an indifferent
pitch, he approached the green. His playing partners, Robert
Hamilton and Toru Taniguchi, and the three caddies stood back,
giving Palmer the moment. The standing ovation was so loud and
long that even Woods, struggling on the 17th hole and famous for
his concentration, took notice.
Ted Williams ended his career with a home run but didn't
acknowledge his fans' applause. Muhammad Ali was punched out by
Trevor Berbick in his last, unmemorable fight. A golfer's career
doesn't end so decisively. All Palmer did on Saturday was play
in his final round in his final Masters. His own game goes on.
At the par-5 15th he smashed a drive more than 240 yards. At 16,
a par-3 over a pond, he smoked a four-iron 180 yards. Those
shots will keep him coming back, not to the Masters, but to the
game. "I hit a couple of shots today that I got encouraged
about," he said. "Hell, I can't wait to get to the practice tee
and see if I can make it work a little better."
Does that sound like a man who's quitting? The old man's got the
bug. He's got it bad.