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Arnold Palmer still a major presence at the Masters

Headcovers honoring Arnold Palmer and his Masters' wins

Headcovers honoring Arnold Palmer and his Masters' wins are seen during a practice round prior to the start of the 2017 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 4, 2017 in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: Getty Images / Andrew Redington

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Only a legend can be a presence with his absence. So the whole week at the Masters will be one long tribute to Arnold Palmer, having begun Tuesday night with a special testimonial from defending champion Danny Willett, who announced his plan Tuesday morning for the Champions Dinner: “Let’s just toast with Arnie’s favorite drink.”

A round of Arnold Palmers — half iced tea, half lemonade — in honor of Arnold Palmer. It was the Masters’ way of saying “Long live The King.”

The four-time Masters champion, who died in September, will be missed during the ceremonial first tee shots Thursday morning when the two surviving members of the Big Three, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, open the tournament without him. Everyone in the vicinity will recognize that it will be the first Masters since 1954 at which Palmer will not be present.

“You feel his presence, his display in the champions locker room; his jacket, clubs, scorecards from past victories,” Phil Mickelson said on Tuesday. “His spirit is here. It always will be here.”

Palmer had a major, lasting impact on every aspect of his sport, but he was especially influential in making the Masters the great showpiece it has become.

“It is the same way that he made golf golf,” said Tom Callahan, a journalist who covered Palmer and whose book “Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer” was released on Tuesday. The author referred to Palmer’s combination of greatness and pure goodness, that he was larger than life yet down to earth.

Masters week was special to Palmer, who once said, “Augusta and this tournament has been part of my life as [much as] anything other than my family.”

Willett recently put Palmer’s logo, a colorful umbrella, on his golf bag. As Masters champion and host of the annual dinner for past winners, he wanted to do something special so decided on the toast. “To not have him here, it’s going to be a sad week,” the Englishman said.

Jordan Spieth, who hosted the dinner last year, recalled how moving it had been to see Palmer there even though his health was failing.

Nicklaus, perhaps sensing it would be the last appearance of the Big Three, grew emotional as he hit his tee shot on the first hole last April. On Tuesday, Nicklaus spoke about his bitter rival and dear friend.

“I don’t know how many people realized how much Arnold took me under his wing when I was 20 years old. In spite of having a gallery that wasn’t so good to me . . . I’ve said many times, I may have had to fight Arnold’s gallery but I never had to fight him,” Nicklaus said during a news conference.

“We had a lot of great times together. We traveled a lot together. Our wives were close friends,” he said.

Callahan’s book mentioned biographical details that were not widely known about one of the world’s most popular celebrities: Palmer was a high school friend of Fred Rogers, who became famous for hosting the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood TV series. Also, Palmer was so slight as a youngster that his trousers kept slipping off, thus he developed the habit of hitching up his pants.

In an interview, the author expanded on qualities that made Palmer such a favorite at the Masters and in every other week of the year. During the Vietnam War, two soldiers named Jeff and Wally, stationed in Chu Lai, wrote to Palmer and asked for tips on hitting bunker shots. They explained that they spent idle time practicing on a nearby beach. Palmer sent them two sand wedges along with a note wishing them safety.

After they returned home, one of them waited outside the locker room at the Western Open to say thank you. Palmer, who received hundreds of letters a year, remembered theirs clearly enough to ask, “Are you Jeff or Wally?”

“That,” Callahan said, “was Arnold Palmer.”

That was the man who still looms large at Augusta.

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