A wide-eyed young man pulled up to the gates of Augusta National Golf Course 50 years ago. He was going to play the 1955 Masters. His name was Arnold Palmer, and in truth, he didnt cause much of a stir among the people who go to the tournament each year. They had heard of Johnny Palmer, who had already played in 11 Masters, finishing fourth one year. Many had heard of Ray Palmer, who played in the 1954 Masters. But few knew ARNOLD Palmer.
Hes going back to that place this year, and its safe to say that every golf fan in the world now knows Arnold Palmer. It will be the 50th time he has walked to the first tee. It will also be the final time for this icon, now 74 years old. He has become the face - and the soul - of the Masters.
I had been to Augusta as a college student, said a suddenly reminiscent Palmer, recalling his days in North Carolina in the late 40s at Wake Forest University. And in 1955, I was a hustling, bustling 25-year-old.
And even though I didnt have any money, I had a wife, a trailer and a car, and I was happy. I was doing what I wanted to do.
The beauty of the place was what immediately stuck in Arnolds mind ' the luscious greens, the vibrant reds and pinks and yellows of the lively hued flowers, even the whites of the sand traps and the stately old clubhouse. Palmer was in love, and hes been in love ever since.
When I got on the golf course, I knew there was nothing prettier, more suited to what I wanted to do in the world ' to be there playing in the Masters, he said.
Arnie shot a 76 in the first round, then backed that up with another 76 in the second. He was a young man just gawking at everything that was Augusta. But by the third round, he was acclimated. He got it back to even-par 72. And in the final round, he showed a little bit of that Palmer magic, firing a 69 and finishing the tournament in a tie for 10th.
He still recalls the winner ' Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who stunned the field with a seven-shot win over second-place Ben Hogan. And the Nelsons, the Sneads, Sarazen and Revolta ' it was a thrill because these were the people that I had just read about and envied to the end. And I was among them, he said.
And that ' that was the ultimate. If I had failed in my endeavors to be a professional, it was just that I had a great adulation for the guys that were successful. It was a distraction to me, and when I played, it was a distraction because I was always looking to see what they were doing. And the reason I was successful is because I was scared that they were gonna beat me.
And that just made me play a little bit harder. And I am thankful for that.
By 1958, in his fourth attempt, Palmer was a winner at the Masters. In 1960, he repeated, making birdie on the final two holes to squeeze past Ken Venturi. In 1962 he won again with birdies on two of the last three holes. And he won his fourth in 1964, claiming a six-shot victory that told the world he truly was The King ' even though he doesnt particularly like the nickname.
Ive lost tournaments that have broken my heart ' I mean, I couldve sit down and cried, I couldve left the game and never come back, said Arnie.
But Ive also won a lot of tournaments the same way ' when I broke someone elses heart. And I remember those things. And I think, you know, the Masters ' I get more acclaim for having won four times, and maybe I deserve it. But winning the Masters once was great; winning it twice was even greater; three times, I know everybody said, Boy, youve won the Masters three times, isnt it great?
But to win the Masters a fourth?
One of the greatest thrills was walking up to the last hole with Dave Marr with a six-shot lead and knowing that unless I dropped dead, I wasnt going to lose. And that was fun, that was what golf is to me ' winning.
Of course, there were the heartbreaks
And then I can go to disasters ' ah, I lost the Masters in 6l when I was overconfident. I got ahead of myself and that is another thing my father taught me. He says, Dont ever accept it until the final putt is in the hole.
And I think about that. A friend of mine was standing on the sidelines (on 18) and I had just birdied the 17th hole to take a one-shot lead over Gary Player. And he (the friend) put out his hand to congratulate me and I went over there and thanked him. And I had the ball sitting right in the middle of the 18th fairway.
And I didnt shank it, but it came as close as I could to shanking it. And long story short, I made six and lost.
It wasnt fun, but it wasnt disaster either. I had an outpouring of friends and fans that made me understand they arent there just because I won. They were there because they are my friends.
Fifty years of Sarazen and Snead and Nelson and Hogan of Trevino and Weiskopf and Nicklaus of Watson and Floyd and Ballesteros and Woods and Els and Singh and Montgomerie. Arnold Palmer has seen them all, played them all, and now he is going to say goodbye.
Left unsaid is that Palmer himself is now the legend that he so idolized long ago. Now HE is that man that many of the young players look at in awe. And now, it is time for him to say thanks for half a century of memories.
The most important thing to me, I suppose, is not the actual strokes or the tournaments ' its more what I can do for the game, or what I have done to improve the game, he says. What I hope the impressions that I have left would be, young people or old people - I would like to look at it and say, Were got to protect the heritage of the game of golf. That would be what I would envision and like to see happen.
He will miss the competition, he will miss the manly give-and-take of the locker rooms, and will especially miss the roars of the fans.
Of course, I think it's going to be exciting for me and it's going to be somewhat sentimental, he says of this, the 50th. But most of all, its an opportunity to say goodbye to all of the fans who have been so supportive over the last 50 years and have been the reason that I have played as long as I have.