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End of an Affair

April 06, 2004
April 06, 2004

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April 6, 2004

Photo Credits: Bettmann/Corbis for Sports Illustrated

End of an Affair

After a half century of making memories at Augusta, Arnold Palmer, the man who made the Masters, will take one last bow

Arnold Palmer was born on April 6, 1958, on the back nine of
Augusta National Golf Club. The midwife was Frank Chirkinian, a
raucously profane television director sitting in a truck in the
pines. As with any healthy delivery, Chirkinian saw Palmer's head
first, then his shoulders and muscular arms, then his narrow hips
as he crested a hill on the 15th fairway--all on a bank of
black-and-white monitors. When Palmer, sizing up his approach shot,
hitched up his pants and flipped aside his cigarette, the birth was
complete. "The cameras capture the essence of a person," Chirkinian
said years later. "They either love you or hate you, and they loved
Arnold."

This is an article from the April 6, 2004 issue Original Layout

They still do. When Palmer tees it up next week in his 50th and
final Masters, the cameras will stalk him as they have stalked no
other 74-year-old athlete in history. To watch Palmer go around
Amen Corner is to make an archetypal connection. It's Brando on a
motorcycle. It's Armstrong on the moon. It's MacArthur wading
ashore in the Philippines. "The Masters is Arnie's stage," longtime
friend Howdy Giles said recently. "That's where he really shines."

Palmer won the Masters four times between 1958 and 1964, and when
he wasn't winning it, he was losing it. That is to say, he was
Chirkinian's leading man whatever the outcome. Palmer finished
third in '59, two strokes behind Art Wall, but housewives came out
of their kitchens and stared over their husbands' heads at the
monochrome majesty of Arnie, the son of a golf pro and greenkeeper
from Latrobe, Pa. Two years later he lost his concentration on the
final hole on Sunday, made double bogey and handed Gary Player his
first Masters title. Golf fans of a certain age remember that
collapse better than they remember details of their own weddings.

"I suppose I appreciated Augusta more than anyone," Palmer says,
trying to explain why his identification with the Masters is
stronger than that of any other player, even six-time champion Jack
Nicklaus. "I was a golf pro's son, and the finances were tough when
I was growing up. I was raised by my father to strive for high
standards, and everything at Augusta was on such a high standard.
There was no other golf tournament like it." On top of this
blue-collar striving, Palmer had a need to prove that he belonged.
He was hurt deeply when, in the locker room at the 1958 Masters, he
overheard Ben Hogan ask another player, "How the hell did Palmer
get an invitation to the Masters?"

Palmer could have confronted Hogan. Instead, he went out and won
the tournament. That first victory, by a stroke over Doug Ford and
Fred Hawkins, earned Palmer a whopping $11,250. More important, it
gave Arnie a seat at the annual Masters champions' dinner, where he
could exult in the practiced banter and storytelling of men like
Claude Harmon, Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Horton Smith, Sam Snead
and Craig Wood. "That was a thrill for me," Palmer says of his
acceptance by the past champions. "I was one of them."

x

Palmer was the most unsolitary of men, and he took his
gregariousness to the course. He waved to strangers. He veered to
the ropes for a quick word with friends. He made the sunburned
spectators in the uppermost row of the 13th-hole grandstand believe
that he was playing for them.

x

Palmer's 50 Masters weeks add up to nearly a year of his life. His
memories are necessarily partitioned; something that happened 30
years ago at Augusta may be more clearly recalled than a recent
incident at a less meaningful place. The "year" began in April
1955, when Palmer, a pro for only five months, and his bride,
Winnie, rolled into Augusta in a coral-pink Ford, towing a 19-foot
trailer. (He tied for 10th that week, earning $696.) The following
year the Palmers shared a Fort Gordon BOQ--Bachelor Officers'
Quarters--with Dow Finsterwald and his wife, Linda. ("That turned
out to be totally unacceptable," Finsterwald recalls with a smile.
"My wife always described it as a barracks.") For the next seven
years the Palmers spent Masters week in the Richmond Hotel, and it
was during this short span that Palmer rose from golf serfdom to
unchallenged status as the King, winning three Masters, a U.S. Open
and two British Opens.

In week 10 of our Augustan year the Palmers rented a house on
Aumond Road, and Arnie won his fourth and final Masters, burying
Nicklaus and Dave Marr by six strokes. Walking up the 18th fairway
on Sunday, Palmer turned to his pal Marr, who was still fighting
for second, and asked if there was anything he could do to help.
"Yeah," Marr said. "Make a 12."

Because the defending champion presents the winner with the green
jacket after the Masters, Palmer's string of appearances at the
ceremony reached seven that year. It would end at a record eight
the following year, 1965, when Arnie played valet to Nicklaus for
the second time.

By then, Palmer's weeks at Augusta had settled into a rhythm that
would prevail for four more decades. The champions' dinner on
Tuesday night was always the highlight, but the Palmers entertained
friends and family the rest of the week, either at the club, the
house or a restaurant. When his playing schedule allowed, Arnie
took lunch with friends under one of the green-and-white umbrellas
on the Augusta National terrace. The chicken sandwich with Durkee's
sauce was, in his words, "a particular fetish."

To fill the hours before an afternoon tee time, Palmer used to
drive out to a retail golf shop near the Augusta airport and work
on clubs with the proprietor, retired Army colonel Bernie Porter.
"It was something to do to occupy the time, and it didn't take a
lot of energy," Palmer recalls. "Winnie always insisted that I rest
more, but that was tough for me. I needed to fix a club or fool
around with the guys and listen to the B.S." In the '70s Palmer's
Augusta landlord, TV ad salesman Bert Harbin, installed a workbench
in his garage so Palmer could tinker whenever he wanted. Says
Harbin, "If he teed off in the afternoon, there would be 20 of us
out there watching him fiddle with his clubs."

Palmer was the most unsolitary of men, and he took his
gregariousness to the course. He waved to strangers. He veered to
the ropes for a quick word with friends. He made the sunburned
spectators in the uppermost row of the 13th-hole grandstand believe
that he was playing for them. "He always seemed to be able to make
eye contact," says Finsterwald. Palmer's connection to the
fans--his Army, in the vernacular of the day--gave him an edge
wherever he played but never more so than at Augusta National. In
1962 Player led Palmer by three and Finsterwald by six through nine
holes of a Monday playoff that Palmer admitted he was "damn lucky
to have made," as erratically as he had played on Sunday. "We've
got to do something to make a match of this," Palmer told
Finsterwald.

Well, sure. Palmer birdied four of the next five holes, made his
fans delirious and wound up winning by three.

That was 42 years ago--an eon in sports, where records are broken
every other week and new heroes pop up like hybrid corn in a
heavily fertilized field. The Masters has changed. The crowds are
bigger, the greens are faster, and the azaleas bloom at the command
of heating elements buried in the soil. Palmer, too, has changed.
He wears hearing aids. His shots with fairway woods roll as far as
they fly. He practically has to kneel to take his ball out of the
cup. And Winnie, of course, is gone. She died in 1999, and four
years passed before he announced his engagement to Kit Gawthrop.

But when Palmer stands on the 1st tee next Thursday, the
spectators will press five-deep against the ropes, as they always
have, and the wide green fairway will climb halfway to the clouds,
as it always has, and Arnold Palmer will be reborn. "What some
players don't seem to quite grasp," he wrote in a 1999
autobiography, "is that golf's enormous success can be attributed
almost entirely to the fact that it hasn't changed much in a world
in which values are constantly shifting or, as some believe,
eroding."

Chirkinian's cameras loved Palmer, all right, but there was more
to it than the hitch of the pants and the flip of the cigarette.
The man striding up the hill into America's living rooms knew
exactly who he was and exactly what he wanted, and by some
wonderful stroke of luck it was exactly what America wanted too.

Happy 50th, Arnie.