Arnie's Army marches at Augusta for last time

Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Arnold Palmer strolled through the mist and fought back the tears. His long goodbye to the Masters came to a melancholy close Saturday.

The 72-year-old champion played his last six competitive holes at Augusta National -- 90 minutes of bittersweet golf that brought back a thousand memories under a gentle, gray sky.

Watching it from behind the ropes was ''Arnie's Army,'' the cult of personality that learned to love Palmer as much for his charming ways as for the herky-jerky swing that won him four Masters titles.

When it was over -- when the standing ovations had ceased and the nonstop applause had faded -- Palmer was as overwhelmed by the fans as they were smitten by him.

His swashbuckling style put Augusta National on the map, and few patrons wanted to miss one last chance to thank him.

''I've seen big crowds, and I've seen people,'' Palmer said. ''But this was unbelievable.''

Before the rain-delayed second round resumed early Saturday morning, fans ignored the ''no running'' warnings from all those Pinkerton security guards. They were in a hurry to be in position when Palmer hit his shot from the 13th fairway.

With a well-struck 5-wood, a thumbs-up sign and a wave to the crowd, the game was back on.

About 10:35 a.m., it came to an end, 48 years after it started, and 44 years since he charged to win his first green jacket with help of an eagle on No. 13.

''I thought I would keep the emotion down a bit,'' Palmer said of his walk up the final fairway. ''But, yes, there's a lot of feeling.''

The other players felt it, too.

David Duval, having just walked off the course after failing to make the cut, stuck around at the scorer's tent to watch Palmer putt for the final time -- the King's hunched shoulders and knock-kneed stance always a dead giveaway.

Greg Norman and Ernie Els watched, too.

The rest of Arnie's fans crammed 10- and 20-deep in the mud-caked gallery, jostling for position. They were standing on tiptoes, craning their necks -- anything to steal a glance of the player who took a rich man's game and delivered it to the masses watching on television and following him on the course.

''Everything we have, everything we achieved, is because of the opportunities he gave us,'' Ben Crenshaw said. ''This tournament won't be the same without Arnie.''

Palmer shot 85 in his closing round, but the final day was more about memories than numbers.

On the 15th tee box, he belted a drive and watched it sail through the sky. He held his trademark pose -- off balance, practically teetering on one foot, straining to stop the club after a swing that nearly brought him out of his shoes.

When the ball came to rest about 240 yards down the fairway, he turned around and darted a jovial, jubilant finger at a friend in the gallery. Yep, the old guy can still sting one every now and then.

''I saw him win it all here in 1962 and 1964,'' said Charlie Gibson, a patron who played college golf against Palmer in the '40s. ''He was the King then, and he still is now.''

But the party is over.

Palmer had been thinking about this for a while. It has been 19 years since he's made the cut in the Masters. He shot 89 in the opening round Thursday, and felt like an embarrassment, even though his fans weren't nearly as concerned.

''If I played pretty well, then maybe I would have considered another year or two,'' he said. ''But you know, my game is just really not -- it's not good.''

So, sadly, an era came to an end.

Palmer is a member at Augusta National, so he'll be back, just not in front of the fans.

He plans to return each year for the Champions Dinners, but sounded lukewarm to the idea of joining Sam Snead on the first tee to become a ceremonial starter.

''I haven't thought about that yet,'' he said. ''I've got some things to sort out, and I'll just wait and see how that all turns out.''

Right now, he wants to head back to the driving range, work on his game and try to polish things up for the U.S. Senior Open and the Senior PGA Championship.

If things don't improve, however, ''I'll be faded away,'' he said.

That's hard to imagine.

Palmer says the fan mail rolls in more steadily these days than it did even in the '60s, when the phenomenon was new and patrons were still allowed to carry their ''Arnie's Army'' signs down the fairways while Palmer closed out his rounds at Augusta.

Asked why he still holds a certain power over the golfing public, Palmer played it coy.

''Well, I'm not going to give you any reasons,'' he said. ''I'd just like to think that the people got to know me.''

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