AUGUSTA, GA. – When Arnold Palmer died last fall, days before the Ryder Cup began, the golf world responded with homages and memorials, even placing Palmer’s golf bag on the first tee of Hazeltine National.
Thursday morning, the setting and the sentiments were more intimate. Palmer helped popularize the Masters as well as the sport itself, and Augusta National honored his memory with a solemn ceremony.
Fans were given “Arnie’s Army” pins and tournament chairman Billy Payne escorted Palmer’s widow, Kathleen, to the first tee.
Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit ceremonial first tee shots without Palmer. There was a moment of silence, Payne honored Palmer with a speech and Palmer’s green jacket was draped on the lawn chair he had rested in a year ago.
“Arnold was a great stickler for manners,” Player said. “Which reminded me, on the first tee this morning, when he sat on the chair last year and they called his name, you know, a lot of people don’t stand up. But Arnold could hardly walk to the first tee and he put his arms like this, and he stood up like this [Player mimed Palmer lifting himself off the chair], because he had been taught to stand up. And he gave a little wave, and that was very touching to me, and I could see him doing it in that chair today. It’s funny how things come to your mind.”
Nicklaus remembered how Palmer treated him well as a young golfer, even as Palmer’s fans jeered Nicklaus.
“Arnold was sort of the guy that made the tournament popular and took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus and Player made the trek from the first tee to the new media center, leading to more stories about Palmer and the fitness-minded Player doing impromptu squats in front of reporters.
Nicklaus, Player and Palmer were known as The Big Three.
“There will be other Big Threes,” Player said. “But I don’t know if you’ll have another Big Three that will live together like we did. I mean, I was in Jack’s home for weeks and Arnold was in my home and Jack visited my farm from time to time and time again.
“We really lived our lives together.”
William McGirt, in second place after an opening-round 69, attended the ceremony. After his round, he remembered his experience with Palmer.
McGirt was on the putting green at Palmer’s Bay Hill tournament when Palmer grabbed his shoulder. “I turn around and it’s him,” McGirt said. “He says, ‘I want to thank you for something.’ All of a sudden I have millions of thoughts running through my head. Why is he thanking me, being No. 1.
“He said, ‘I just signed something over there and yours was the only signature I could read.’ ”
Palmer made his autographs legible, and his memory indelible.