As I write this, we are 21 days from the final day of the 2017 Masters, and 175 days since we lost our King.
I don’t have an Arnold Palmer story. I never met him, nor interacted with him in any way, but he played a big part in my finding my way to golf simply because he was a mythical figure in the game when I was just taking it up. I suspect many of you can say the same.
If you offered me one tournament to win on Tour, it would be the Masters. It has always been that way for me. Augusta National looks amazing, seems to be incredibly hard and yet fair, and is the style of golf that I like and can appreciate.
I don’t mean to take anything away from Pebble Beach, which is lovely, or the Old Course at St. Andrews with it’s ancient history and the unique style of play it requires, but in the time and place when I was learning the fundamentals, Augusta most closely matched the kind of golf course I had available to me.
When you bring The Masters and Arnold Palmer together, you get a legacy that is incredible and is surpassed only by the greatest professional golf player of all time, Jack Nicklaus.
From his first victory in 1958 until his last in 1964, Palmer dominated the Masters, winning four times and finishing second once. He also threw in another runner-up finish in 1065.
His victory at Augusta in 1958 was his first of his seven professional majors, and it almost didn’t happen. On the 12th hole during the final round, Palmer’s tee shot ended up behind the green in a lie he felt was plugged, and from which he thought he was entitled relief which he was not granted. He made a double bogey on that ball. Availing himself to the rule allowing him to play a second ball in cases of questionable rulings, he played a second ball after taking the drop he felt he was entitled. He made par on that ball and continued play while waiting to hear if his par would stand.
Several holes later, the tournament committee deemed that he was entitled to a drop and par would be his score on 12. He would go on to win that tournament by a stroke.
Two years later, Palmer won by a single stroke over Ken Venturi and by two over Dow Finsterwald. Palmer actually held the lead in 1959 after three rounds, but a triple-bogey on the 12th hole (that hole again) led to a third place finish, two shots back.
Getting back to 1960, it’s worth noting Finsterwald incurred a 2-stroke penalty on the second day when – during first round play – he was practicing his putting after he completed a hole, which was (and still is) a violation of the rules. It’s hard to know if that had an effect on the outcome of the tournament because there were more than two rounds left to play, but you can make a strong case for it considering he finished two back of Palmer.
For his third Masters, Palmer decided to do something a little different. This time, he won in a playoff over his old buddy Finsterwald, and the legendary South African Gary Player, who was the defending champion. Palmer had finished second to Player the year before. In fact, Palmer noted if not for a triple on the last day in 1959 and a poor approach on the 18th hole in the final round in 1961, he might well have won five straight Green Jackets.
In 1962, however, Palmer displayed his flair for the dramatic, slashing it around the front nine of the Monday playoff in 37, three behind Player. During the turn, however, someone must have reminded him of two things. One that he had won this tournament twice before and, two, that he was The King.
Palmer played the back nine in 31, including three straight birdies on 12, 13, and 14, erasing the deficit and winning his third Masters by three over Player and by nine over Finsterwald.
For his fourth and final Masters, and his last major championship on the regular Tour, Palmer showed the world why in his prime he was one of the best players on earth. He shared the lead after the first day with four other players, but then he put a stranglehold on the tournament. Up by four after the second round, Palmer increased his lead each day culminating with a leisurely Sunday stroll and a 6-stroke victory.
During the span from 1957 until 1967, Arnold Palmer never finished out of the top-10 at the Masters, and only finished out of the top-5 twice during that span. A remarkable run of extended and brilliant play.
It was a perfect storm of Palmer’s charisma and expert play combined with the beauty of Augusta National and the advent of color television. These things came together to push the handsome and engaging Pennsylvanian to the top of the golf world and beyond.
Arnold Palmer became a household name. People who didn’t watch golf watched the Masters, and Arnie’s Army swelled with new recruits.
Only two men have ever won as many Masters as Palmer, and only one of those men has won more. Arnold Palmer was the King, and Augusta National was his court.
We will never see another like him and the first week in April will not be the same without him.
Rest in peace, your highness.
Cover Image via Flickr