AUGUSTA, Ga. – Thunder came in the dark of 3 in the morning. By 8 o’clock, God had changed his mind. He sent sunlight. The softest of sunlights. Under the venerable live oak behind the clubhouse, the sunlight found its way onto Arnold Palmer’s face. Palmer didn’t walk in the light. He has trouble walking now, trouble even standing. He’s 86 years old. He rode in a golf cart, moving from the clubhouse to the first tee. With Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, he would start this Masters.
“Not driving this year but forever . . . “ the tournament chairman, Billy Payne, said, and the rest of what he said didn’t much matter because everyone there, a thousand people gathered by the tee, likely had their own idea of what “forever” meant. They may have seen Arnold Palmer a lifetime ago, young and strong. They may have seen him a year ago when he snapped a low hook off that tee. On this morning, in sunlight soft as a lover’s whisper, they saw Palmer lift a hand to them, Arnie loving them as he has done forever.
There had been talk that Palmer, even in his diminished state, might hit one of the ceremonial first shots. The talk might have started with Nicklaus. At the champions annual dinner two nights earlier, Nicklaus said, “Arnold, when you’re out there, what if you just . . . ” He and Player would take him to the shot. “I don’t care if you putt it off the tee,” Nicklaus said. “I think everybody would love to have you do anything.”
Even as Nicklaus told the story, he acknowledged that Palmer’s health issues include worrisome problems with balance. This morning, when Nicklaus asked Palmer what he wanted to do, the great man said he was content with just being out there. “I said, ‘Fine, let’s leave it alone.’”
So Palmer left the clubhouse into that redeeming light, with Nicklaus and Player walking behind him. “A royal procession,” one old sportswriter called it, and the old sportswriter talked about the light shining on those men, “light better than any Hollywood lighting director could have done,” life’s light at the end of a thunderstorm.
Palmer, the first time: “Arnold’s forearms are like this,” Player said, cupping both hands around his right forearm to suggest a blacksmith’s tool, the Palmer he first saw hit a 1-iron “like a bullet,” this Palmer: “And I saw him bend down, it was a windy day, and he picked the grass up like this and threw it up in the air and didn’t even look. I said, ‘Why do you do that?’ He said, ‘All the good players do it, so I do it.’….Wow, this guy. . . .he oozed with charisma.”
Palmer, the first time: “I was 14 years old and playing the Ohio Amateur in Sylvania, Ohio, outside of Toledo,” Nicklaus said. It was 1954. It was a Tuesday. Some things you remember not only the year, but the day of the week. Nicklaus had come in from a rainstorm. He saw one man still on the practice tee. “I had no idea who it was and I watched this guy, looked like Popeye, hitting these drilling 9-irons that were going about 12 feet high.” The kid, 14, had seen a man, 24. He watched the man a long time before asking, “Who in the world is that out on the practice tee? That guy looks some kind of strong.” That guy was the Ohio Amateur’s defending champion, Arnold Palmer.
Whatever Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Byron Nelson had done for golf, here came Palmer, Player, and Nicklaus to move the game into America’s consciousness. They won the Masters 13 times. They won 31 major championships. Every week, it seemed, one or another won on the PGA Tour or in Australia or South Africa.
“We had a very unusual friendship among competitors,” Player said. “It was so fiercely competitive, and we made it very clear we wanted to beat the hell out of each other. And when we were done, we looked the other man in the eye and said, ‘Well done.’”
“I think television was just starting,” Nicklaus said, and by that he meant that Palmer, flying trouble shots from under bushes, had just invented golf on TV. “And sort of having a rivalry between the three of us captured the golfing public.”
Palmer, in retrospect: “Arnold in his prime really wasn’t a very good driver. He was long, but he hit it in the trees,” Nicklaus said. And wonderfully so. We loved what happened then. “I think that’s where his popularity came from, the recovery shots and the excitement . . .” We all had been in jail, but only Arnie dug his way out. “But he was unbelievable putter. Arnold was as good a putter as ever played the game.”
Palmer, in retrospect: “So we built a friendship,” Player said, “traveling extensively around the world.” Nicklaus and Palmer “came to South Africa to my farm. They went down gold mines. We went to game reserves. We stayed at Jack’s house, we stayed at Arnold’s.”
And on a Thursday morning in 2016 that we’ll remember forever for its soft golden sunlight and the glory it suggested, the three were together again, one 86 years old, another 80, another 76. It was a moment at once “gratifying and sad, “ Player said, “because everything shall pass.”
And there on the first tee he went to Arnold Palmer.
He said, “I want you to know I love you.”