For fans, Palmer's finale still makes cut

The Masters

April 10, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - The man of the people is gone now. Long live The King.

Arnold Palmer's last round at the Masters was exactly the way you'd imagine it should be: joyous, humorous, painful, inspiring and tiring.

At one point, as he teed off on the 11th to start his final turn around Amen Corner, the officials at each hole stopped posting his score. Maybe it was because once he climbed to 20-over, the numbers didn't fit on the board anymore. Maybe it was out of respect. Who cared what he shot? This was about being here, competing.

His body said he was 74. His legs told him they had taken Augusta and turned it into a Tiger-proof marathon. His mind?

"The old competitiveness is still there," he said.

"Go get 'em, Arnie!" the people yelled.

He waved. And waved. And waved.

This final march across Augusta National was as brisk and deliberate as ever, except for the crossing of the Byron Nelson Bridge. Palmer walked in front of partners Bob Estes and Nathan Smith. Nothing strange about that. Palmer always leads the way.

But on this day, the young golfers paused at the foot of the bridge to let Palmer have it all to himself; one last time, alone. It was the day for such a gesture.

It was also a day of some comedy and danger. That would be the snake on the 13th hole that made Palmer jump out of Rae's Creek.

"As I was walking up the road from the men's room on 13, I was just sort of deep in my own thoughts and I came around in back of the rules man, who was sitting very happily in his chair, and he said: `You scared the [stuff] out of me,' " Palmer said.

"We had a few pleasantries. Then I started down through the ditch and a snake about as long as that [about four feet] ... I almost stepped on him. ... Well, if I had felt a little tired, I didn't then. I came out of there and I was flying."

The shinsplints that pained him all day stopped suddenly on the 15th. The last four holes, crowds thickened at each tee box and green. Time was slowing down. Time was running out. It was a time to reflect, especially at the very end.

"I thought about how many times I've walked up that 18th fairway. I can think of the four times that I won the Masters. I can think of a couple of times that I didn't win that I felt like I should have won. I can think of the fans who have supported me and listened to them, and, of course, they all have something to say," he said.

There was a moment yesterday after Palmer, 74, missed a two-foot putt on the 18th and tapped to complete his amazing 50-year run at the Masters when you wondered: Who's going to do this job now?

Fifty years, without fail, and - don't let the 21 consecutive years of missed cuts - without failure is the run Palmer put in here. He leaves with the game of golf as big, as lucrative, as made-for-TV as ever, which would seem to indicate it doesn't really need him anymore, but you wonder.

Who makes a sport what it is?

Who gives it a face, a name, a style, it's energy?

Who defines it, transcends it, brings it to life, puts it on TV, makes it big business, yet intimate - a one-on-one experience between him and you, the audience that needs someone to translate what it's like on the other side of the ropes?

Arnold Palmer was a way in to that foreign, intimidating, quiet place. He was the medium who channeled people into the game.

Golf is golf, even for some of the most compelling stars of the game today. Tiger Woods made the cut yesterday, pulling out a 3-under-69, so TV ratings will swell for this weekend's final rounds. Woods is as good as it gets: Must-see TV, even when his off-kilter swing is getting more scrutiny than the national security adviser under oath.

Woods the competitor lights a bonfire under golf. Palmer? He gave it a warmth, a glow. He gave it a place at our sporting table, let us pull up our chair. He did it by the way he waved to the fans, tipped his visor.

Palmer didn't have galleries at the Masters. He had his army. Arnie's Army was born in 1958, when soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon manned the leader board. They adopted Palmer.

"I didn't know who these guys were so I went and found out. In the process, I found out they had taken leave from the Army for the week to do the scoreboard. ... We're rooting for you," he said.

"And, of course, their enthusiasm was fantastic and it expanded from there."

Expanded all the way to yesterday. Fifty years later, he still charged down the fairway, hitching those pants. He was close enough for high-fives, to crack the joke, to wink and flirt.

Come with me, he said.

"Go get 'em Arnie," people called back.

Fifty years, at Augusta, Arnold Palmer performed this role with gusto.

"I'm done. Cooked. Washed up. Finished. Whatever you want to say," Palmer said.

"I won't say I'm happy it's done. It's time for it to be done, for me."

Who does his job now?

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