ORLANDO, Fla. – We watched Arnold Palmer’s last full shot at the tournament that now bears his name in 2004, a driver from 221 yards away that looked much cooler than it sounds.
We watched the King’s final turn on the Champions Tour at the 2006 Father-Son Challenge, and it turns out we have watched his last ceremonial tee shot at the Masters.
It was cold last April, and Palmer’s 85-year-old body wasn’t working the way it once did when the four-time Masters champion sent his tee shot trundling down Augusta National’s first fairway.
There was no indication that last year’s opening tee shot would be Palmer’s last. During the post-tee shot press conference, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player were asked if they took any pride in how the Masters had grown, in no small part thanks to their contributions to the tournament.
“Let Arnold say something about that because he was ...,” Player insisted, with Nicklaus’ urging, “(Palmer) was here a long time before we were.”
“Yes, and I hope I'm here a long time after you,” Palmer winked with his signature smile.
Palmer will be at Augusta National next month to attend the Champions Dinner and watch Player and Nicklaus get the week started on the first tee Thursday; but just like that last approach shot in ’04 at Bay Hill, it was time.
“Time moves on,” Palmer said on Tuesday at Bay Hill. “I stopped playing in the Masters in 2004, I stopped playing in the Par-3 [Contest] last year, and now it’s time to end this part of my Masters career. I would love to go on doing it forever, but I don't have the physical capability to hit the shot the way I would want to hit it. So I’ll have to be content to watch.”
But just as another chapter closes on Palmer’s legendary career, you’re reminded of his enduring status. On Tuesday afternoon Palmer was perched behind grandson Sam Saunders on Bay Hill’s practice tee.
Saunders is in this week’s field and Palmer was doing what he’s always done, cracking jokes, telling stories, enjoying the company of other players.
News surfaced last week that Palmer wouldn’t be holding his annual State-of-the-King press conference on Wednesday at Bay Hill, instead answering questions from a pool reporter.
Coupled with the news that he was resigning his duties on the first tee at Augusta National, it was a sobering sign.
But on Tuesday as he mixed with players and caddies, there was no sense of sentimentality. That’s not Arnie’s style.
Instead, Palmer greeted all, from the third-ranked player in the world (Jason Day) to No. 163 (defending Bay Hill champion Matt Every), with equal zeal.
Palmer loves the game and those who play it, regardless of pedigree.
“I was the only one out on the course. I was out there by myself and I got to talk to him for 10 minutes, which was nice,” said Day when asked of his first meeting with Palmer years ago. “I mean obviously he enjoys seeing the players and he's one of those guys that I think loves going out and seeing every player regardless of who they are. Could be 125th on the FedEx Cup but he loves seeing the players and hopefully passing a little advice here and there.”
Nor was there any regret, not over his decision to step down at Augusta National or his reduced role this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
That’s not the way Palmer has lived his life.
“I think the people I have met have meant a great deal to me, more than any shot I ever hit,” Palmer said. “I will always remember some golf shots, but others I would like to forget. But I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from people who have supported me, golfers who have helped me. If it wasn’t for the game of golf I’d probably be mowing the greens back in Latrobe.”
It was at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club late last year during an interview with Palmer that we fully began to understand that connection Palmer has with those in his path.
Framed on the wall of his sprawling office, which is just down the hill from Latrobe’s first tee, was a letter and a $10 bill.
It was payment for a bet made with Palmer that he would win the 1965 PGA Championship at Laurel Valley in Ligonier, Pa. He didn’t win that PGA, or any PGA – the only blemish on an otherwise flawless resume.
Enclosed is payment for my bet – and never was there one more reluctantly paid.
Also attached is a picture cut from the Philadelphia Inquirer. It indicates dejection; please remember that a couple of accidents will not be important a year from now. You’ll win a lot more tournaments and forget all the woe caused by bridges, rocks and complaints about a tree.
All the best,
As ever, D.D.E. [Dwight D. Eisenhower]”
Some 50 years later, it’s not Palmer’s 62 PGA Tour victories or any of the millions of shots he’s hit we remember, it’s what the King continues to mean to the game in whatever role he choses to play.