Arnie’s Army perform final salute

Then there were two. As Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus performed their duties as honorary starters at the 81st Masters yesterday morning, an empty lawn chair was on the tee box with them that the previous year had been filled by their great friend Arnold Palmer.

Arnie’s Army perform final salute

Six months after the passing of the man known to everyone in golf as The King, Palmer was honoured at Augusta National, home of the tournament with which he became synonymous.

It was an emotional ceremony on a chilly, sunny morning in Georgia, as Masters tournament chairman Billy Payne accompanied Palmer’s widow, his second wife Kit, from the clubhouse and draped the late golfing superstar’s green jacket over the chair.

Twelve months previously, a frail Palmer had been unable to join his friends and former rivals by hitting the ceremonial tee shots that signal the start of the first major of the year.

Yet it had not stopped him from attending and Palmer had sat in that chair and taken his bow as part of the game’s great triumvirate, who won 13 Masters between them.

This is the first Masters since the four-time champion died at the age of 87 last September, on the eve of the Ryder Cup and the first one without Palmer since 1954.

From his debut in the tournament a year later, he played 50 Masters in a row, helping to usher in the television age as he became the people’s champion, beloved by a band of followers who became known as Arnie’s Army.

That army mobilised once more yesterday, filing through the gates of Augusta National from 6:30am to take their positions around the first tee as the golf club’s green-jacketed members watched from the clubhouse verandah.

Chairman Payne led an impeccably observed moment of silence before Player, 81, and Nicklaus, 77, took their ceremonial swings down the first fairway, watched by current tour pros including Rickie Fowler and Will McGirt.

“This is a wonderful and difficult day,’’ Payne said to the assembled throng, who had been handed Arnie’s Army badges as they entered the course.

“Arnold Palmer was more than a king. He was my friend. He was your friend.”

The occasion was clearly an emotional one for the two giants of the game, with Player saying: “I got on the first tee and was choking. People were coming in here by the thousands at 6:30 this morning.”

That the Masters became so popular an event was in large part down to Palmer, six-time champion Nicklaus added.

“Arnold won his first Masters in ‘58, won in ‘60, ‘62, ‘64, and it was a time television was getting started. It was a time the popularity of the game was really stimulated by Arnold. It was a time when, you know, the Masters was just sort of getting its feet wet with what’s going on in the golfing world.

“Arnold was sort of the guy that made that popular and took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf. Then Gary came along, and Gary won ’61, and of course, I won ’63.

“We came along and added to that, but I think it was Arnold who took it to that.

“So my feeling was , yes, the Masters made Arnold in many ways because of his wins but the other way around, I think Arnold made the Masters. Arnold put the Masters on the map and with his rise and his popularity, the Masters rose the same. I think they were both very good for each other and very synonymous with each other.”

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