Palmer Ends Competitive Career at Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A wink, a hug, a wave to the crowd. Without even swinging a club, Arnold Palmer has always known how to make the people smile.
 
The King did it again Friday, closing out his competitive career at the Masters during one last sentimental stroll around Augusta National, the course he carried straight into American culture over the past 50 years.
 
'It's not fun sometimes to know it's over,' he said afterward, fighting through the tears.
 
But it sure was fun to watch him go.
 
Or maybe touching is more like it.
 
The day began when he burst onto the first tee box and headed immediately toward the ropes - slapping hands, hugging and sharing words with many of the loyal fans who staked out ground early to see him on his way.
 
He closed out his career at Augusta with a second straight 84, but the score didn't matter. Like his age - 74 - it was just a number. What the thousands who watched him really cared about was that time he looked their way, or said 'Hello,' or gave them one of those trademark winks, or that famous thumbs-up signs.
 
'He has a way of making everybody think he's looking at them,' said Col. Joe Curtis, who has followed Arnie for 49 years at Augusta, the last few in an electric wheelchair. 'That's called charisma.'
 
Back in the day, when Palmer had the game to go with the charisma, he brought golf, a sport for blue bloods and the country-club set, straight to the average man.
 
He won the Masters four times, and it was during the first win, in 1958, that the phenomenon known as 'Arnie's Army' began.
 
'They were holding up signs,' Palmer said.
 
He recalled a meeting the next year with then-chairman Cliff Roberts, who 'came up to me and said, `We're going to ban signs. You caused us a problem with those signs.' I told him I didn't have any problem with that.'
 
And really, it didn't take signs to spot a member of the Army. That was as clear back then as it was in his finale.
 
'He's a boyhood idol of mine,' said 49-year-old Dave Bockorny, who caught Palmer's eye during the round. 'I just respect him so much.'
 
Bockorny said he loved watching Arnie go for broke and take big chances in spots where other players would have played it safe.
 
That's what helped Palmer win here in 1958, when he went for the shot across the stream and made eagle on No. 13. It was also one of the hundreds of memories racing through Palmer's mind as he took his long, final walk up the 18th fairway.
 
'If you just use your imagination, you'll understand the emotion,' Palmer said. 'I think about how many times I walked up that 18th fairway. I think of the four times I won the Masters, and the couple times I didn't when I should have won. I think of the fans who've supported me, and I listen to them.'
 
They were out there all day Friday, enjoying every little nugget Palmer offered.
 
The best picture may have come on No. 6, when he hit a perfect tee shot down to the green on the little par-3. Jack Nicklaus was playing on the adjacent hole, No. 16, and the Golden Bear took note, giving Arnie a thumbs-up sign. Palmer replied with a bow to Nicklaus and there they were, the King and the Bear enjoying golf together, however briefly.
 
On No. 9, Palmer stopped to give his oldest granddaughter, Emily Saunders, a hug. It wasn't the only time he went to the ropes to greet a family member. He said this was the first time his entire family had been there to see him play.
 
'He was so glad the whole family could be part of it today,' Saunders said.
 
Palmer's family extends well beyond blood, though.
 
He helped make the game popular at a time when televised sports were just taking hold. Fathers passed on their love of the game to their sons, and many a boy - and girl - learned to play the game simply because they wanted to be like Arnie.
 
'I don't like golf, I just like Arnold,' said Ellen DuBois, attending her 49th Masters. 'It's his last and it's my last. I'm not coming anymore.'
 
Sadly, the party is over for lots of Palmer's fans. They can be thankful, at least, that they got a two-year reprieve from when Palmer said farewell to Augusta National in 2002. Back then, he felt like he was being pushed out by the club, which was trying to weed out past champions who weren't competitive anymore.
 
Arnie and chairman Hootie Johnson conferred and agreed it just didn't feel right.
 
'The fact is, the one thing I wanted to do is what I did today, and that was finish 50 years at Augusta,' Palmer said.
 
Sensing the history, a handful of players and caddies and pretty much all the members with green jackets hung around late to watch him finish. Thousands of fans crowded the 18th green, standing 10 and 15 deep - craning their necks, teetering on tiptoes, doing anything to get a glimpse.
 
What they saw was a reminder of their hero's present, not his glorious past. His second shot on the long par-4 was short and left of the green. Palmer pitched perfectly 4 feet below the hole, only to push the par putt badly to the right. There was no farewell gift from the golf gods to tempt a return.
 
'It's done,' Palmer said. 'I won't say I'm happy it's done, but it's time for it to be done for me.'
 
Indeed, he may be right.
 
On Friday, though, it was hard to imagine that the rest of his Army agreed.
 
Related links:
  • Full Coverage - The Masters Tournament
  • Masters Photo Gallery
  • Tee Times
  • Arnold Palmers 50th Masters
     
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