For a moment, Arnie was back

JOHN EISENBERG

April 11, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Suddenly, for a few gilded moments yesterday afternoon, everything was as it used to be.

The Beatles were a rumor. Cars had push-button gears. Khrushchev was pounding his shoe on the desk at the United Nations. And Arnold Palmer was wham-bamming the back nine at Augusta National.

Space travel was a miracle. Brooks Robinson was a kid from Arkansas. Televisions came in black and white.

And Arnie was charging. At the Masters, no less.

This was 1992? No way. It was 1962. Had to be. It was Palmer on a sunny afternoon, trailed by a stomping, whooping mob hoisting up dogwood-rattling cheers as he rolled from hole to hole, hitching his trousers, squinting down the fairway and hacking out birdies.

Suddenly, everything was as it used to be. Eisenhower was up in his cabin near the clubhouse, Nicklaus was a wide-body amateur and word was spreading across the course almost instantly: "Hear those cheers? It's Arnie."

Just as they said during his third-round 68 in 1958, when he won the first of his four Masters titles. Or in 1964, when he won his fourth with 68-69-68 on the first three days, at age 34.

The difference yesterday, of course, was that he was 62 and silver-headed, playing with nerves long unraveled and hearing aids in both ears. He was trying to make the cut for the first time since 1983, his chances small after a first-round 75 and front-nine 40 yesterday.

It just didn't matter, though. His charges exist in a time capsule. You can take them out 30 years later and strip them of all consequence, and people still go running to the next hole to get a good view, hollering at each other through the tall pines.

They are still there for no other reason than to see him, which was always the point, even more than his golf; and he is still there because he is an indefatigable ham, trying to give them what they want even when there's little left to give.

"What would make you happy this week?" someone asked Wednesday.

L "Well," he said, "I wouldn't be totally happy unless I won."

It wouldn't happen if they spotted him 25 strokes, and he knows it, but he just can't help himself. You don't have to be an actor to have the theater in your blood.

Discouraged about his front nine yesterday, he hung a number in his head on the 10th tee. "I told myself I'm going to shoot [5-under] 31 on the back," he said. "And I had a chance until the 16th."

Until. There's always an until with Arnie now. His putting is ruinous, his irons wild and his concentration "just terrible." But let's not get ahead of the story.

His approach shot to the silent cathedral that is the 10th green, surrounded by pines, dropped 15 feet from the hole. His putt hit the middle of the cup and dropped. The 11th was a replay: an approach over the lake to within 12 feet, and a perfect putt.

And the noise began to build. Cars with fins, Lombardi's Packers, Satchmo . . .

After parring the 12th, he reached the green in two on the par-5 13th, his second shot a rousing 3-wood over the creek. His 50-footer for eagle was five feet short -- his devilish distance. But this one dropped.

Three birdies in four holes. Off they all went, hollering through the woods.

A par on the 14th and a long, straight drive on 15 left him standing on top of a ridge, staring over the lake down to the 15th green. And suddenly things were precisely as they used to be: He airmailed a 3-iron to within 15 feet, rolled in the eagle putt and shook his tanned fist as the cheers rattled the bleachers.

Judy Garland, Unitas-to-Berry, Jack Paar, Arnie's eyes crinkling at an eagle . . .

He was now 5-under through six holes. A big crowd gathered at the par-3 16th, drawn by the cheers that still sound like no others here, hopeful of grabbing a shred of the moment, of just seeing it, which was always the point.

But it turned out to be a gilded moment, the sheen dulling in an instant.

"I was putting for another birdie from 10 feet," Arnie said, "and I got distracted."

By what?

"I'm not going to tell you," he said, smiling.

Whatever, it robbed him of the magic. He three-putted for a bogey and missed his approaches to the next two greens. He finished bogey-par, with a 33 on the back nine, and missed the cut.

"I can't concentrate," he said. "Just can't keep it up."

But it wasn't the ending that mattered, of course. What mattered was those couple of moments that rose up from the lines of history and offered a glimpse of the way it used to be.

"That was fun out there for a minute," Arnie said, and he smiled.

Yes. Sure. Fun. And what a beautiful smile.

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