Arnie Jack Cant Say Goodbye to Augusta

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Dogwoods and azaleas, the King and the Bear. They go hand-and-hand at the Masters.
 
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer are back at Augusta National, and it's hard to know who's happier - the fans who flocked out in the cold, gray weather to see them play practice rounds Wednesday or club chairman Hootie Johnson.
 
'I've been looking forward to that question, as opposed to the women's issue,' Johnson said, when asked about Jack and Arnie's return halfway through his contentious news conference.
 
Their goals this week are different: Nicklaus wants to compete. Palmer, who called it quits here last year, then changed his mind, simply wants to play. But they were united in the feeling that Johnson misstepped last year when he hastily drew up a rule to limit the lifetime exemption for past Masters champions to age 65.
 
Before last year's event, Johnson sent letters to aging former champions Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper, suggesting they sit it out. A few days later, Johnson announced the new policy, and that was partly why Palmer, who hasn't made the cut since 1983, said he wouldn't return.
 
'I don't want to get a letter,' Palmer said famously last year.
 
Upon review, however, the 73-year-old Palmer decided he'd like to come back. He sent Hootie a letter of his own, and the 63-year-old Nicklaus did the same.
 
They suggested to Johnson that taking away the past-champion's exemption was a misguided step that could turn the Masters into 'just another tournament.'
 
'If we just resign ourselves to having the everyday tournament, and it has nothing to do with who won or why they won or how they won, then you lose some of the tradition that made the tournament what it is,' Palmer said.
 
In what was certainly his strongest public-relations move during a year of questionable ones, Johnson relented last month, with the caveat that players police themselves, and decide when they no longer belong.
 
'I guess you might say that I overfixed our problem,' Johnson said.
 
While he admits he has already reached the point at which he is no longer competitive, Palmer's goal is to play two more Masters to make it an even 50. Given his history in the sport and at this event, nobody is going to argue.
 
'It's fun reminiscing and looking back,' said Palmer, whose four wins here from 1958-64 were key in delivering a rich man's game to the masses.
 
Nicklaus, a six-time champion, is also returning, after sitting out a year because of back problems that ruined his swing.
 
'I've got to go and relearn how to play the game of golf,' Nicklaus said. 'I would love to have a golf game. I don't think I'm there yet, obviously.'
 
But unlike Palmer, Nicklaus is not simply happy playing ceremonial golf. He's here to compete, and aside from winning, he feels a top-10 finish is realistic if he plays really well.
 
'You've got to have some goal,' he said. 'I've never enjoyed finishing 20th. I might as well shoot for closer to the top.'
 
Of course, Nicklaus and Palmer make the gallery happy simply by showing up.
 
Anytime Nicklaus gets on the leaderboard at Augusta - he finished sixth in 1998 and briefly got into the top 10 in 2000 - there's an incomparably electric feeling.
 
When Palmer made what was supposed to be his final walk up the 18th fairway last year, fans packed 20 and 25 deep just to catch a glimpse of The King. They didn't want him to go, and as it turned out, he didn't really want to leave.
 
Or at least that's what he thought. After spending some time on a waterlogged course eerily similar to the one that ate him up last year, Palmer knows he's got a tough ay ahead of him Friday.
 
'It's very hard out there,' he said. 'But I'm going to tee it up because I said I would. That's the way I do things.'
 
Related Links:
  • 2003 Masters Tournament Mini-Site
  • Tournament Coverage
  • The Augusta National Membership Debate: A Chronology
     

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