MASTERS 2017

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE -

AUGUSTA — Even in poor health, Arnold Palmer made one last trip to Augusta Na­tional.

He was too fee­ble to swing a club, leav­ing Jack Nick­laus and Gary Player to han­dle the cer­e­mo­nial open­ing tee shots. But Palmer donned a green jacket, flashed his crooked grin and gave every­one the fa­mil­iar thumb­sup sign.

Less than six months later, he was gone.

Now, it’s time for the Masters to pay homage to the King.

In the first ma­jor cham­pi­onship since Palmer’s death last Septem­ber , Augusta Na­tional is go­ing all out to memo­ri­al­ize his im­pact on the club — where he won four of his seven ca­reer ma­jors, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a fullfledged mem­ber — and the free-swing­ing bravado that helped to pop­u­lar­ize golf at the be­gin­ning of the tele­vi­sion era.

There are lit­tle re­minders all around the course, from Call­away bags adorned with pink head­cov­ers — Palmer’s fa­vorite shirt color — to Jor­dan Spieith mim­ick­ing that knock-kneed putting form for a tap-in at Amen Cor­ner dur­ing a prac­tice round.

When the tour­na­ment be­gins on Thurs­day, pa­trons will re­ceive a com­mem­o­ra­tive badge hon­or­ing “Arnie’s Army” — the pas­sion­ate fans who cheered him on by the thou­sands dur­ing his rise to great­ness, mes­mer­ized by the swash­buck­ling player from western Penn­syl­va­nia who al­ways seemed like one of them, even as he ac­cu­mu­lated unimag­in­able wealth and fame.

Billy Payne, the chair­man of Augusta Na­tional, said it “will no doubt be an emo­tional good­bye, but at the same time, an even more pow­er­ful thank-you to the man we dearly love.”

Spi­eth re­flected on Palmer’s sur­prise ap­pear­ance at last year’s tour­na­ment, which turned out to be his Masters farewell.

“I thought it was in­cred­i­ble that he made the trip,” Spi­eth said. “I was taken aback when I heard he was go­ing to be there, be­cause he wasn’t in great health, but he kind of re­bounded a bit around that time.”

As the 2015 cham­pion, Spi­eth got to pick the menu for the an­nual din­ner at­tended by past win­ners. Palmer was among them, which made the night even more poignant for the young Texan.

“I stepped back and did a lot of lis­ten­ing, other than what was re­quired to tell him, ‘Hey, this is what you’re ac­tu­ally eat­ing.’ There were some in­cred­i­ble sto­ries told,” Spi­eth re­called. “It was a tremen­dous honor to have Mr. Palmer there, and it was cer­tainly emo­tional.”

Af­ter his play­ing ca­reer ended, Palmer took over the honor of hit­ting the first tee shot at Augusta, still dis­play­ing that low, wind-milling swing even as the ball flew fewer and fewer yards. He was even­tu­ally joined by for­mer ri­vals Nick­laus and Player, re­con­nect­ing a Big Three that com­bined to win 34 ma­jor cham­pi­onships.

For Nick­laus, it will be a bit­ter­sweet mo­ment when he steps to the first tee just af­ter sun­rise with­out Palmer by his side.

“I don’t know how many peo­ple re­al­ize how much Arnold took me un­der his wing when I was 20, 22 years old,” Nick­laus said. “When I first started on the tour, Arnold was very good to me. ... I may have had to fight Arnold’s gallery, but I never had to fight him. He was very kind to a young guy start­ing out. I ap­pre­ci­ated it very much.”

Even though Nick­laus even­tu­ally sur­passed Palmer, go­ing on to win a record 18 ma­jor ti­tles, the two be­came close friends. Their wives did, too.

Palmer passed along a few tips to his pro­tege, lessons that Nick­laus car­ried with him the rest of his ca­reer.

“One of the things early on, maybe the first, sec­ond or third tour­na­ment I was in on the tour, I asked him, ‘What do you do af­ter a round?’ He said, ‘I al­ways drop the spon­sor a note,’” Nick­laus said. “I don’t think I ever failed to drop a spon­sor a note af­ter a tour­na­ment, thank you for the tour­na­ment and thank­ing the peo­ple, the vol­un­teers and so forth and so on.

“I’ve had a lot of spon­sors come to me and say: ‘Jack, ev­ery year I get a let­ter from you. I don’t get one from any­body else.’ And that came from Arnold.”

For those watch­ing the Masters at home or keep­ing up with it on­line, Palmer will have a huge pres­ence. CBS and broad­cast out­lets around the world will have ac­cess to the club’s his­tor­i­cal ar­chives. The same goes for Augusta’s dig­i­tal plat­forms and printed pub­li­ca­tions.

“We have en­cour­aged them to show­case his ac­com­plish­ments,” said Payne, adding that the club would also make a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion” to Palmer’s chari- table foun­da­tion.

Payne first met Palmer at Augusta Na­tional even be­fore be­com­ing a mem­ber.

“Of course, I was com­pletely in awe and he was so nice and so ac­cept­ing of my em­bar­rass­ing play,” Payne said. “I’m not sure I ever met a man who was more giv­ing than Arnold Palmer. He had a pro­found in­flu­ence on my life.”

He also had a pro­found in­flu­ence on the Masters, which surged in pop­u­lar­ity when Palmer ripped off a run of four vic­to­ries in seven years be­gin­ning in 1958.

He’ll al­ways be the King around this place.

File photo, Char­lie Riedel | The Associated Press

Arnold Palmer gives a thumbs up April 7, 2016, be­fore the cer­e­mo­nial first tee be­fore the first round of the Masters golf tour­na­ment, in Augusta. The King turned up one last time at the Masters, in ill health but still flash­ing his smile.

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