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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

Ceremonial starter Palmer recalls his first Masters

April 6, 2007

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Honorary starter Arnold Palmer acknowledges the crowd after hitting the ceremonial tee shot for the first round of the Masters on Thursday in Augusta, Ga.

Honorary starter Arnold Palmer acknowledges the crowd after hitting the ceremonial tee shot for the first round of the Masters on Thursday in Augusta, Ga.

— There were so many memories, so much going through his mind.

The job of the gray-haired man in a light blue sweater on this chilly spring morning was to stick a tee in the ground and hit a shot down the first fairway. Arnold Palmer had done it so many times before he shouldn't have had to think twice about it.

This was different. Because now Palmer's thoughts drifted back to another era, a simpler time.

The years came rushing back.

He remembered the time he first came here as a starstruck college student to watch names like Snead, Hogan and Nelson. The time when he first teed it up in the Masters and Gene Sarazen was his playing partner. The time the president of the United States wanted to play golf with him the morning after he won a green jacket.

So many memories.

It was just one tee shot, one swing of the driver. Somehow, it seemed to mean so much more.

"Whoever thought that 60 years later, here we are," Palmer said.

He's an old man now, with stooped shoulders and a face weathered by years in the sun. His once massive army has been reduced to a collection of fellow senior citizens who were as happy to see him as they were glad they didn't have to leave their folding chairs on the first tee to follow him down the fairway.

This was one place he hadn't expected to end up. The Masters had ceremonial starters before, but they were all players from another time and, well, they were all old.

Now he was old too, and if he needed any reminding, all he had to do was look around the interview room and see the large picture of himself looking young and vibrant in a sweater nearly a half century ago.

If he needed a second reminder, it came when he bent slowly to put a tee in the ground just like he had done so many thousands of times before.

"I can still bend over, anyway," Palmer said, drawing a chuckle from his geriatric army.

He's 77 now and, like many his age, life has settled into a quiet routine. Most days he wakes up around 6 a.m., puts on the coffee, tosses a leash on his dog and goes out for a walk. This morning would be different.

He was back at a place where he thrilled so many with his swashbuckling style on his way to four Masters titles, a place he left with some bitterness after a brief tiff with the former chairman over whether he could still play or not.

Much to his dismay, it turned out Palmer couldn't play anymore. But Hootie Johnson still lost that battle in the court of public opinion because he was going up against The King, a man who turned on millions to the game of golf and made it cool before Tiger Woods made it even cooler.

He thought about those times in the 24 hours leading up to his ceremonial first tee shot. He thought about how much this golf course and tournament meant to his life.

"A lot of those things came to my mind," Palmer said. "I just was reminiscing and thinking about how much Augusta has meant in my life, right up to today."

He had been thinking about becoming the ceremonial starter for a few years now. It used to be a fixture, but the Masters hasn't had one since Sam Snead died five years ago.

With a new chairman on board, this was the time. And Palmer also understood that time might be running out.

"I didn't want to get up and die before I did it," Palmer said. "Getting to my age, at some point you've got to think about that."

There was nothing riding on this tee shot, unlike the 50 other drives he had hit off the first tee on Thursday morning of previous Masters. Still, Palmer wasn't going to take any chances.

He took two drivers to the range, hitting about 20 balls before picking the one he would swing. Then it was off to the first tee, where his arrival was announced by a wave of applause that began at the clubhouse and spread to the course.

The familiar glint was in his eye, and he posed for pictures with new chairman Billy Payne. He joked to Payne that if he hit it well, he might play 18.

A chilly breeze blew into his face as long, early-morning shadows framed the famous opening par 4. Around him, fans streamed into the course hoping to catch a glimpse.

Palmer put his tee into the ground, addressed the ball and looked down the fairway.

"Sure is beautiful, isn't it," he said to no one in particular.

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