Arnold Palmer began what will be his final go-round at the Masters on Thursday with his army mustered behind him once more. They lined every fairway, tee to green. Grizzled veterans who joined decades ago stood shoulder-to-shoulder with new recruits eager for what might be their only glimpse of the King.
'I started coming here when I was 3 with my dad. He always told me, `Root for Arnold Palmer. You follow Arnold Palmer,'' said Blanton Phillips, who this year brought his own 3-year-old, Sam.
'I'd like him to see Arnie here on his last trip around,'
Phillips said, nodding at his son. 'When he's my age, he'll be able to look at his pairing sheet and say he was here when Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus were all playing in the Masters at the same time.'
That Palmer was never in contention at his 50th consecutive Masters hardly mattered. The four-time Masters champion is 74 now and hasn't made the cut since 1983, and that streak is sure to continue Friday after his opening 12-over 84.
But for five hours Thursday, Palmer's fans got a chance to return all the love and respect they've gotten from him all these years. They lined up in the rain just for the chance to watch him tee off, and they were rewarded with a smile so bright it lightened the gray skies.
'Go get 'em, Arnie!' one fan yelled, and Palmer responded with a smile and a thumbs up.
'It was fun today,' Palmer said, 'feeling that adrenaline flowing like so many years.'
And for a few holes, at least, there were flashes of the old master. After a disappointing double bogey on the par-3 No. 4, he seemed to be in more trouble on the fifth when his 40-foot birdie putt reached the crest of a hill and rolled all the way back down to the edge of the green.
But Palmer knocked it in for par, and the crowd roared as if he'd hit the tournament winner.
On the par-3 No. 6, his tee shot went into the gallery on the left side of the green, well below the pin. This time Palmer chipped within inches of the hole, prompting one fan to yell, 'Pick it up!'
'I felt pretty good,' said Palmer, whose grandson, Sam Saunders, caddied for him. 'I thought maybe I might put something together.'
But he closed the front nine with bogeys on two of the last three holes and then opened the back with a double bogey and two bogeys.
'I was a little embarrassed by my score,' Palmer said. 'But I won't have to worry about it much longer. That's disappointing, because I enjoy playing.'
And golf is better because he did. Palmer was the dominant player of the 1960s, winning seven major championships. But it was his personality that altered the game forever.
He visited with fans in the gallery as he played, and they felt he was truly glad they were there. When fans applauded, he looked them in the eye and waved.
He was their friend.
'It's kind of like family,' said Charles Cooley of Stone Mountain, Ga., who has been coming to the Masters since 1956. 'You just feel like you know him.'
Ellen DeBois was 8 years old when she came with her father to her first Masters. While the other golfers were too busy to acknowledge her, Palmer took the time to talk to her. Just like that, a lifelong adoration was born.
DeBois, now 56, has been to 38 Masters and about 200 tournaments overall, all to see Palmer. She has a shrine to him at her house, and almost 400 of his autographs. On Thursday, she wore an Arnold Palmer T-shirt and a hat with buttons that read, 'I'll Really Miss You Arnie,' and 'I (Love) Arnie.'
'To me, he is golf,' said DeBois, who said she won't come back to the Masters again. 'There's nobody like him.'
No, there's not. And there probably never will be again. While Tiger Woods has fans the world over, and Phil Mickelson and John Daly draw big crowds, no one is revered like Arnie.
There was an uproar two years ago when Augusta National sent letters to some aging champions who had a tendency to withdraw after the first round, if not sooner. The message was for them to stop playing.
Palmer announced that the 2002 Masters would be his last, saying, 'I don't want to get a letter.' But the Masters softened its stance and Palmer changed his mind, deciding his 50th anniversary at Augusta was the perfect time to leave.
'I look forward to it,' Palmer said after his round Thursday. 'It'll be done tomorrow. But I'll never say it wasn't fun.'
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