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Ashway: Arnold Palmer, a Master's tradition

POSTED: April 8, 2014 3:54 p.m.
 

It’s Masters Week.

Tune the piano.

But this week’s a special one for the traditionalists. It marks the 50th anniversary of Arnold Palmer’s fourth, and final, Masters victory.

Hard to imagine that by the age of 34, Palmer had already notched all seven of his wins in majors. "Of course, you never think you’re going to be at your last stop," Palmer said on a conference call last week. "But it was great."

Palmer seemed to be at the top of his game in April 1964. He was in the midst of a stretch from 1958 through 1967 that included only one finish worse than fourth at Augusta. In 1963, he finished ninth.

And he owned the even years, winning in ’58, ’60, ’62, and ’64, becoming the first player to win four Masters titles.

But with Palmer, it wasn’t so much the result as the journey. He’d hitch up his pants, take a big swing and go for broke. Laying up wasn’t in his vision. Even on the greens, he’d charge every putt, betting that he could make all those pesky five-footers coming back if need be.

The results were always spectacular, win or lose. He concocted the rare birdie-birdie finish to beat Ken Venturi by a stroke in 1960. A year later, he finished with an excruciating double-bogey, giving Gary Player a one-shot win. In 1962, he birdied 16 and 17 to tie Player and Dow Finsterwald, and then beat the pair in a playoff the next day.

His crowning victory at Augusta came in 1964. He won by six shots over Dave Marr and Jack Nicklaus, missing Cary Middlecoff’s record victory margin by a single stroke. His 12-under-par total of 276 missed Ben Hogan’s tournament record by two shots. A final round of 70 kept Palmer from becoming the first player to complete the Masters with four rounds in the 60s.

Incredibly consistent, Palmer shot 35 on the front nine every day. His back nine scores were 34-33-34-35.

The chance to savor the stroll up the final fairway, after so many close finishes, was a moment Palmer has never forgotten.

"I suppose, psychologically, I had accomplished maybe more than I ever realized by winning the Masters and walking up the 18th hole comfortably," he said last week. "That was something that was truly great for me."

What tends to be forgotten after so many years is what Palmer did for the game of golf. There might have been a few better players, but no one ever did more for the game of golf than Arnold Palmer.

He possessed that rare combination of charisma, charm, personality, compassion and talent. He was someone everyone wanted to see, just as everyone was able to see, through the emerging medium of television.

"Arnold was the epitome of a superstar," Raymond Floyd told Golf Digest when Palmer turned 80. "He set the standard for how superstars in every sport ought to be, in the way he has always signed autographs, in the way he has always made time for everyone."

His huge galleries followed him around every course, never knowing what they’d see next, but knowing it would be memorable. Arnie’s Army helped establish new boundaries for golf’s popularity.

"On the golf course, all I ever saw was a mass of people," Floyd continued. "I saw, but I didn’t see. He was able to focus on everyone in the gallery individually. It wasn’t fake."

Palmer also looked out for his fellow golfers. Nicklaus has never forgotten an act of kindness Palmer extended at the 1962 Phoenix Open.

"The first time we played as pros in the same group," Nicklaus told Golf Digest. "I needed a birdie on the last hole to finish second to him in the tournament.

"I’ll never forget coming to the 18th tee. ‘Relax,’ Palmer said, ‘you can birdie this hole. Come on, it’s important.’ I did birdie it, finishing second, making a whopping $2,300. Oh, by the way, he nipped me that week by 12 shots!"

Player, the other member of the Big Three, who’ll join Nicklaus and Palmer for the ceremonial Opening Drives Thursday morning, captured the essence of Palmer for Tom Callahan: "Jack won majors for 25 years. I won them for 20. Arnold won them for six. But because he was so charismatic, because he did so much for golf, because the people loved him so dearly, they thought he was still winning.

"And you know what? He was."

Palmer became a very rich man through golf. Just last year, turning 84 in September, his total earnings through golf, according to Ron Sirak of Golf Digest, were $40 million. That ranked him third in the world, behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

The greens keepers son found success because he found his passion. It’s impossible to imagine anyone breaking his record of playing in 50 consecutive Masters.

"I think of him as the greatest amateur-professional who ever lived," his friend Dow Finsterwald told Callahan. "By that I mean he never stopped playing the game for the love of it, like an amateur. Sure, he liked making a nice living. But he loved to play.

"Still does."

 

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