AUGUSTA, Georgia — With a touching gesture and a moment of silence, the Masters paid tribute to Arnold Palmer. Then the tournament got going in earnest, which was the greater tribute to Arnold Palmer.
Palmer once represented “something new” here at a place that reveres tradition unlike anywhere else. He pumped color into the event and it has been surging ever since.
“Arnold made the Masters. He put the Masters on the map,” Jack Nicklaus said after he and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots early Thursday, in front of Palmer’s widow Kit and an empty chair draped with the late icon’s green jacket.
Nicklaus raised his cap toward the sky before he hit his drive. Daniel Summerhays, waiting on the tee to hit the first official stroke, said, “I had goose bumps. He could barely see the golf ball. He was in tears. You could feel Jack Nicklaus’ love for Arnold Palmer in that moment. And that was a really special thing.”
Masters chairman Billy Payne hosted the ceremony, one that had a gaping hole in the Arnold Palmer Charisma category. Palmer, who died in September, had been at every Masters since 1955, won four of them and cherished every chance to be one of the honorary starters.
Palmer was here last year, when he could barely swing and could hardly stand. Payne wistfully recalled that as he said, “It still hurts so bad that he is not here with us today.”
“Arnold Palmer was more than The King, a title he justifiably deserved by virtue of his four Masters victories and more than 70 PGA Tour and senior tour wins. Arnold Palmer was my friend. He was your friend,” Payne told hundreds of people around the first tee, each wearing a Masters-furnished “Arnie’s Army” button. “Despite all of his fame and fortune, he always had time for all of us: a smile, an autograph. He was always giving.”
What he gave the Masters was a crisp, vibrant new life. “He won in ’58, won in ’60, ’62, ’64 and it was a time when television was just getting started,” Nicklaus said. “It was a time when the popularity of the game was really stimulated by Arnold. It was a time when the Masters was just getting its feet wet with what’s going on in the golfing world.
“Arnold took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf. We came along and added to that, but I think it was Arnold who took it to that (level),” Nicklaus said. “With his rise, the Masters rose the same. I think they were both good for each other and very synonymous with each other.”
Part of Palmer’s legacy is the Masters’ vitality. As much as the club and the tournament embrace the past, they are not mired in it. To be sure, social change has not always moved as swiftly here as it should have, but the place has gone forward in accepting African American and women members. In pure golf terms, Augusta always is pushing and pulling and trying to make things better for today and tomorrow.
Nicklaus, like Palmer, loves modern golfers. He knows all about them, and knows many of them personally. The respect goes both ways. Every year, some of today’s pros go out of their way to watch the ceremonial tee shots. Player and Nicklaus noticed that Rickie Fowler and William McGirt were there at 7:40 a.m. Thursday even though their own tee times were not until 10:12 and 11:07, respectively.
That was another tribute to Palmer. So is the close relationship between Player and Nicklaus. Palmer had been the glue that cemented their friendship. The two of them still carry on the needling that was a longtime three-way razz-fest.
Player said the two surviving members of the Big Three were talking recently about what makes someone a true golf superstar. Player said it would require six major championships. “So Jack says, ‘I think you’ve got to win 10,’ ” Player said. “He knows I have nine.”
Arnold Palmer never needed any formal measurement to qualify as a transcendent figure, a shaper of golf and the Masters. He was more than a star. More than The King.