In 1958, Arnold Palmer was on the cusp of stardom. The kind that transcends the sport in which the athlete participates. He was an established winner, with eight PGA TOUR titles to his credit in just over three seasons. He offered the attraction of Marlon Brando and the adventure of Douglas Fairbanks.
All he needed was that signature victory. The kind that only comes from winning a major championship.
On April 6, 1958, Palmer had that opportunity. He shared the lead with Sam Snead entering the final round of a rain-plagued Masters Tournament.
At the beginning of that Easter Sunday, holes 11, 12 and 13 at Augusta National Golf Club were just White Dogwood, Golden Bell and Azalea. By the end of the day they were exalted as “Amen Corner.”
Legendary author Herbert Warren Wind was looking for an appropriate way to describe where the tournament’s most critical action took place. And as every great originator does, he stole a little of the past to create something that would stand throughout the future.
Wind borrowed the name from the jazz recording “Shouting at Amen Corner.” Milton Mezzrow produced that version. Arnold Palmer conducted the ’58 reprisal.
After making the turn in even-par 36, Palmer dropped a shot at the par-4 10th. On the par-3 12th, he opted for a 4-iron from 155 yards. Too much. The ball flew the green and embedded between the rear bunker and the putting surface.
“The golf course was very, very wet and that day we were playing wet weather rules,” Palmer says. “I saw an official there and I said, ‘I’m gonna lift, clean and place this ball,’ and he said, ‘Oh no you’re not.’ He says, ‘You can’t do that.’ Well, of course, I knew better and so I begged to differ with the official.
“I said, ‘I’ll play two balls,’ and I did. I made five with one and I made three with the other.”
Palmer first played his original ball on his way to making double bogey. He then dropped from the embedded area and pitched up nicely for a gimme par.
It wasn’t until the 15th hole that Palmer was officially told that he was entitled to a free drop and that he would be credited with a par at 12.
That didn’t sit too well with his playing companion that day, Ken Venturi. Venturi, who had blown the 1956 Masters by shooting 80 in the final round to lose by one, challenged the decision, as well as Palmer’s integrity. In his 2004 book, “Getting Up And Down: My 60 Years In Golf,” Venturi said Palmer knowingly took an illegal drop.
Trailing Palmer by just one, Venturi initially believed that his chief opponent was entitled to a free drop. But after Arthur Lacey, a former president of the British PGA, denied Palmer relief, Venturi felt Palmer didn’t adhere to the rules.
His senior complaint was that he believed Palmer did not declare that he was going to play a second ball until after making double bogey with the first. Palmer says that’s not true, that he informed Lacey – whether Venturi heard him or not – of his decision to play a provisional.
Venturi also believed that Palmer should have been playing both balls simultaneously so as not to gain a competitive advantage, by getting a feel for green conditions playing one and then the other.
USGA rules at the time – under which the tournament was being contested – stated that even if a player did not announce his intentions ahead of time, the score he made with the second ball would count – which in Palmer’s case was the par.
Venturi’s argument, which he made in his book, was: “What if he had chipped in for birdie (with the first ball)? He wouldn’t play a second ball, would he?”
Says Palmer now about the accusations, “Well that bothered me a little, yeah. But we’ve talked a lot about that and that’s a dead issue.”
Venturi went on to lose this Masters by, not so coincidentally, two strokes. It wasn’t, however, those pair of strokes stricken from Palmer’s record at the 12th that the champion recalls as paving his path to victory. It’s the two he earned against par at the 13th.
With Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts and tournament founder Bobby Jones looking on, Palmer striped a tee shot down the par-5 fairway. Then, with the ball above his feet, and Rae’s creek about 220 yards in front of him, he laced a Wilson 3-wood.
“I was pretty sure I hit a good shot,” he says, “and I knew it was going to be OK. I didn’t know if was going to be as good as it was.”
Palmer’s ball finished 18 feet from the hole.
“I made the putt for eagle,” Palmer says, “and later, when the tournament was over (Jones) remarked to me – and he was very complimentary – he said, ‘Those were three of the best shots I’ve ever seen. …He said, ‘Arnie, if I ever have a 10-footer for my life I want you to putt it for me.’ Well, I swelled up over that.”
After making the impressionable putt, Palmer flung his cap in the air as if he had won the tournament – and didn’t still have five holes left to play.
Whether nerves or a loss of concentration, Palmer bogeyed Nos. 16 and 18. And then he waited.
(Back in those days players weren’t grouped in accordance to score, which is why Palmer didn’t play alongside Snead on Sunday.)
Two players had a chance to force a playoff with Palmer. Fred Hawkins missed a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole to do so. Doug Ford did likewise from 10 feet.
“I sure was elated. It never was a sure thing,” Palmer, who earned $11,250 for that victory, says today. “And to win the Masters … there are things I will never forget about that.”
In addition to the birth of Amen Corner, two other things came to life at the 1958 Masters: 1) Arnie’s Army. 2) Arnie’s celebrity.
It was 50 years ago that Arnie’s Army was first publicly commissioned by a group of military personnel who came to the tournament from a nearby Army base, Camp Gordon – back when you could get tickets at the gates.
It was also when Palmer became the object of TV’s affection.
The Masters was being showcased on television for just the third time in 1958, with a broadcast of only holes 15-18. And even though all of the drama had transpired on that reverential trio of holes, and Palmer dropped shots at 16 and 18, he was still the beauty of the camera lens’ eye.
Dashing and daring, the blooming superstar was the perfect match for the thriving medium.
“Well, I don’t think there’s anybody perfect for anything, but it was a great opportunity for me,” Palmer says. “And, of course, to win Augusta and then a couple years later win the (U.S.) Open right after winning Augusta again, it was exciting. I was living in it and I was loving it.”
Palmer was a leading man in more ways than one. His triumph signaled a new era in golf, one in which the legendary likes of Hogan and Snead would never again win a major championship.
Palmer, on the other hand, would win six more, including three more green jackets over the next six years.
To this day Palmer can’t emphasize one major victory more than another. But there’s nothing quite like the first.
After that maiden major, Palmer got to play a round at Augusta with the President of the United States, famed general and golf aficionado Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“The President, he was there, and he invited me to play golf with him the next morning, Monday morning, which was a great thrill,” Palmer recalls. “I had planned on going home and that changed my mind. I stayed and played golf with him and that was one of the great thrills of my life.
“That’s something I’ll never forget.”
As time progresses our bodies begin to regress. Our faces become less taut. Our stride less quick. Our speech less loquacious. But, if we’re fortunate, our memory remains, even if confusion occasionally casts a cloud.
On a fine day in March, 2008, Arnold Palmer vividly recalls the incidences of the first week in April, 1958. How he won his first major championship and how it forever changed his life.
Can you believe it’s been 50 years, he is asked?
Palmer laughs and looks down. He then looks up, pauses, and says, “Well, it’s a long time. Some mornings when I get up I can believe it’s (been) 50 years. But there are other days when I get up … and then I feel pretty good.”
“Today,” he says, “I feel pretty good.”
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