89 sets stage for Palmer's exit

72-year-old legend says today `will be it' - his farewell at Masters

The Masters

April 12, 2002|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga.--The memories flooded back for Arnold Palmer yesterday at Augusta National Golf Club, as did the tears.

While the scene for the opening round of the 66th Masters might not have been as emotional for Palmer as playing in his last U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, it was still touching and certainly a bit tough to watch the four-time champion struggle in shooting an 89.

Though the thousands of fans who have followed him over the years, including some who go back to his debut here in 1955, would love to see Palmer, 72, continue to play at Augusta, the golfer simply known as "The King" will play his last competitive round in the Masters today.

"I've been thinking about it for some time now," Palmer said after equaling his worst score in a major. "It doesn't mean I'm going to quit playing golf. It just means I'm going to just have some more fun."

Asked if today's round will definitely be his last at the Masters, Palmer took his best shot of the day.

"Tomorrow will be it. That's it. I don't want to get a letter," Palmer said, referring to the controversial letter sent by tournament officials earlier this year to three former older champions, telling them their "lifetime" exemption had ended.

It was a struggle from the start yesterday for Palmer. After hitting his tee shot on the 435-yard, par-4 opening hole in the fairway, he needed a 3-wood to get to the green. He barely reached the front, and putted his next ball off the green. He wound up four-putting for double-bogey 6.

"Then I knew what kind of writing was on the wall," said Palmer.

It didn't matter to the fans, who gave him a standing ovation at each green and each tee.

"The gallery, as you know, they've been fantastic, and they were no less than that today," said Palmer. "They were very protective ... and, of course, that made me feel good. On the other hand, as someone said to me, how do you account for this large gallery when you're not playing worth a damn?' "

Palmer waited a moment for the punch line.

"I said, `Well, hell, the ones I don't know by their first name are relatives,' " said Palmer.

If there is any tournament that is synonymous with Palmer, it is the Masters. It was here in 1958 that Palmer won the first of his seven major championships and, more importantly, launched his legend. It was here that the term "Arnie's Army" first appeared in a headline in the local newspaper.

"There's no question that Augusta has meant an awful lot to me over the years," he said. "It may have been the one tournament that really kicked me off and got me started in my career. So it [today's round] will be emotional. But you know, those things happen, and I'm not sad about it. I'm sad that I'm not playing well enough to play and represent the kind of golf I'd like to represent."

In a prepared statement later on, Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said, "It would be impossible to enumerate all the contributions Arnold Palmer has made to the Masters. He has provided us with countless years of excitement and thrills, and has shown us how the game of golf is supposed to be played. We owe a debt to Arnold, and he will always have a very special place in Masters history."

Palmer said he is committing to playing in this year's senior majors, including the U.S. Senior Open that is scheduled for Caves Valley Golf Club near Baltimore in late June.

While he talked about some of the memories he will take from both his victories here as well as his most painful defeat - in 1961, he double-bogeyed the par-4 18th on Sunday to lose by a shot to Gary Player - his next-to-last round here provided playing partner Robert Hamilton with a memory that will likely last his lifetime.

"I mean playing in the Masters is a dream, but to play with Arnold Palmer is just unimaginable to get that pairing," said Hamilton, 24, who earned his invitation by finishing second in last year's U.S. Amateur and shot 77 yesterday. "To play with him on this golf course, there are no words to describe it."

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