AUGUSTA, Ga. - Arnold Palmer has the utmost respect for guys who played golf in the '30s and the current players who are in their 20s. Never does he mention that he is the sturdy bridge between them and the light that makes all of them shine. He is not an "In my day . . . " kind of person.
That is why he is still The King. Golf fans, like everyone else, like their royalty great and humble. That is what they have in the 84-year-old who remains one of the biggest names and greatest forces in the game. He was at Augusta National Tuesday, marking the 50th anniversary of his fourth and final Masters victory, praising Masters icons Henry Picard and Horton Smith, and Masters rookies Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
During a news conference on his way to the champions dinner, Palmer spoke glowingly, almost emotionally, of Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods. He recalled having drinks with the former and predicted a full recovery and bright future for the latter. The sight and sound of Palmer was a reminder that, while Woods has been dead set on breaking Jack Nicklaus' major tournament record, it is Palmer's legacy that he is continuing.
Palmer was the one who, before Woods, came along at just the right time and played with just the right panache to cause golf's popularity to explode. What Woods has done in the Internet age, Palmer did in the television age. He still is going strong. He will be one of the honorary starters on the first tee of the Masters Thursday, along with Nicklaus and Gary Player, and he has no plans to stop.
"I think the chairman makes that decision," Palmer said, referring to Billy Payne. "And if he wants me to hit that first tee shot and I have to crawl, that's what I'll do."
When he was asked recently about the demise of the Eisenhower Tree, the 60-foot tall loblolly pine that had to be removed after an ice storm, Palmer (a friend of Eisenhower) quipped, "I watched it grow up." Fact is, compared to what it has become, the Masters was a quaint tea party the first time Palmer and his wife parked their trailer nearby in 1955. Still, he said, "The feeling was so overwhelming that I felt I had died and gone to heaven."
You'd have to look long and hard to find a bigger factor in the Masters' growth than the man who was raised driving a tractor and cutting greens in Latrobe, Pa.
"It taught me to be humble and to know where I came from," he said. "I suppose I think about my father and the things that he told me when I was driving that tractor."
Deacon Palmer, the greenskeeper, had intricate instructions for his son about driving the vehicle that had steel wheels and steel spikes.
"If you didn't keep them flat on the ground, it would spin and it would tear the golf course up. And that got my attention," Palmer said. "It got my attention because the old man was about to kick my [butt] all the way around that golf course if I didn't learn how to drive the tractor. It was like playing golf: Do what he tells you to do."
Arnold Palmer took his father's lessons to heart. He still answers his fan mail. He is honest about his "psychological downfall" that kept him from winning even more majors. Palmer has been at the wheel for more than half a century. He is the reason many of us started loving the game in the first place, and he left it a better one for the generations that followed him.
Long live The King.