AUGUSTA, Ga. - She was 35 years old, or thereabouts, with reddish-blonde hair and a face full of sun-baked freckles and eyes a man could swim in. No media badge, mind you, but not a bit shy about slicing her way into the scrum. She was on a mission, would not be denied.
“Ohhh, Mr. Palmer,” she cooed with just a trace of drawl. “You are just soooo handsome.”
The man whose face might someday be the fifth to be carved into Mt. Rushmore, a man who loves a bit of mischief, whose wink makes women swoon and men feel important, leaned her way with an impish grin dancing on his lips and said, “You know, you're not bad yourself.”
Even in a group with Gary Player, left, and Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer is always the center of attention at Augusta National. He shot 76 yesterday to go with a first-round 82.
Arnold Palmer is the King and Augusta National Golf Club is his kingdom. This is his place and these are his people.
It was at the tail end of lunchtime yesterday that Angel Cabrera, the stocky, big-hitting Argentinian, walked to the ninth green looking for a fifth straight birdie. Oh, by the way, Cabrera was leading the Masters at the time.
A couple hundred fans lounged around the green and offered polite, rather automatic applause.
Palmer was in the following group with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. By the time they hit their approach shots, the tables on the clubhouse lawn had emptied, fans had poured out of the valley and maybe 5,000 spectators were pressed together ringing the ninth green. It happened in a matter of five, maybe six minutes. Palmer was first to march up the hill and the roar was almost deafening.
The moral of the story? Golf fans would still rather watch 71-year-old Arnold Palmer shoot 80 than watch all but maybe a handful of today's tour stars shoot 65.
It is true anywhere. It is gospel at Augusta National. The love affair is so two-sided here that the old boys who run this most exclusive of all men's clubs recently made Palmer the first and only professional golfer to be included on the membership roll.
“They probably figured I already had a green jacket,” Palmer joked.
Four of them, in fact. Only Nicklaus, with six, has won as many or more. A great champion, the National's members say of Nicklaus. One of us, they say of Palmer.
So it is on these hallowed grounds, inside the green and white striped ropes, that Palmer can find refuge from the unpleasantness that has en- veloped him of late, where he can slow the sand trickling through the hourglass, where he can be the true American icon.
Palmer's downward spiral began in November of 1999 when his beloved Winnie, his partner for 45 years, died of cancer. Then came the Callaway-United States Golf Association flap, probably the worst thing that has ever happened in his professional life.
Callaway, a dominant golf equipment company, began producing the ERC II driver. The USGA ruled it did not conform to specifications, effectively banning its use in any type of meaningful round.
Caught squarely in the cross- hairs was Arnold Palmer, who is paid $400,000 annually to play Callaway clubs and balls and serve as a company spokesman. He also has been paid absolutely nothing for the past 25-plus years to be a spokesman and ambassador for the USGA, an affiliation he has treasured.
Betwixt and between, Palmer endorsed the club for recreational golfers. His carefully-worded message translated to something like this: All you hackers out there who couldn't hit a green in regulation shooting a billiard ball out of a bazooka, if this club helps you and makes a round of golf more enjoyable, well, go crazy.
The USGA's response could not have been more crushing had they tacked Palmer's picture to the post office wall.
“I've been called a cheater,” Arnie said, the pain of such a thought etched into his bronzed, weathered face.
Many who have been friends and competitors for decades also criticized Palmer's apparent willingness, for money, to endorse a club that the governing body of American golf said was illegal by its standards.
The criticism and the suggestion that his opinion was bought and paid for chafes at Palmer. Fact is, $400,000 a year is pocket change to a man whose annual income is conservatively estimated at some $20 million. It's certainly not enough silver to buy out this particular man's golden reputation.
Public response has been kinder to the King. The message to the USGA? Back off. You need Arnie more than Arnie needs you.
And the Masters still needs Palmer as much as he needs it. Nicklaus may grudgingly tolerate the “Big Three” pairing that has thrilled fans here for the last couple years. Player seems OK with it, although he may or may not realize he's just along for the ride. But Palmer basks in it.
He may be a ceremonial golfer, but the Masters is the grandest of all ceremonies. He has been center stage here since his first victory in 1958. Governments have toppled, countries have been erased. But Augusta National remains Arnold Palmer's kingdom.
Dave Hackenberg is a Blade sports writer.
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