AUGUSTA, Ga. — So who embraces nostalgia any better than the Masters?
A half-century ago, Arnold Palmer won himself a green jacket for the fourth time in seven years. It was his seventh major. It would be his last. Tuesday, the folks who run the season’s first major took the time to celebrate this golden anniversary.
“Well, I’m happy to be here,” Palmer, 84, said before heading to the annual Champions Dinner. “Let’s just say that. I came here first in 1955, and I parked a trailer with my wife (the late Winnie) on the other side of Daniel Field just off the railroad tracks. Are they still there?
“I drove over to the club, and the feeling was so overwhelming. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. And I mean that. It is very difficult to tell you what that feeling was like. I was just very thankful.
“I felt like I was walking on a cloud. It was so beautiful. It was something that I talked to my father (Deacon) about when I was a baby. Knowing that I had arrived at the Masters. That was the beginning. And the rest is pretty much history.”
He finished 10th in his debut, and bagged his first major here three years later. For 11 years starting in 1957, he was never worse than seventh. He played for the last time a decade ago. Since 2007, he’s been one of the honorary starters, joined in 2010 by six-time winner Jack Nicklaus and in 2012 by three-time winner Gary Player. So how long will he keep doing it?
“I think the chairman makes that decision, and if he wants me to hit that first tee shot and I have to crawl, (then) that’s what I’ll do.”
This is where he was able to cash his first paycheck.
“That in itself was a thrill of a lifetime,” Palmer said. “I was still under the PGA rules and auspices of not being able to accept what I won on the normal tour events, because of the apprenticeship. But at Augusta, I was able to put in my pocket and take home. I had not been a professional six months. So that kind of gives you an idea of what it was like to be here.
“I stayed in a hotel downtown, and it was fine. It was a lot different than it is today. The accommodations were OK. And getting a caddie, Iron Man. I’ll never forget him. Nathaniel Avery was his name. He told me where to go and what to do, and that was the end of it.”
Before 1964, something Palmer had never experienced here was an easy win. That year, he beat Nicklaus and Dave Marr by six.
“It had been a squeaker every (previous) time,” Arnie recalled. “I would walk up 18 and people thought I was looking at them. I was scared to look at them. I was playing to win the Masters, and it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and most enjoyable.
“So to walk up 18 feeling comfortable, like, hey (giving a thumbs-up sign) ... Marr, who was my playing partner and also a friend, when we teed off 18 the last day, I sort of casually said to David, ‘If I can help you, I will.’ And he looked at me and he says, ‘You know how you can help me?’ And I said, ‘How is that?’ He says, ‘Make nine.’ “
Eras change. Some memories fade, others get embellished. He was the King. That’s forever. Still, he couldn’t leave us without weighing in on the guy who might break Jack’s record for most majors. The presence who isn’t here this week for the first time in two decades, thanks to back surgery.
“Lately I’ve heard so much about Tiger (Woods) and opinions,” Palmer said. “Opinions are what you pay for them, and most of us don’t pay much.
“As Tiger continues on his personal physique and ability to work and stay healthy, I don’t see any reason in the world why he will not come back and potentially (still) do the things that he has the desire to do.
“There is a drawback that relates to myself a little about the psychological aspects of the game. He’s going to have to overcome the fact he won as much as he did, and he’s going to have to refresh that in his mind and his approach to the game.”
Then he was off, to trade stories and break bread with the old gang.
“We used to sit down in the room, and I counted them one year and I think there were, like, 12 guys at the dinner,” he said. “I remember talking to some of the other pros, and Nicklaus was one of them, and we were kind of laughing and we had just held the title for a couple of times. And we said, you know, it would be nice if we could keep this room to 12 or 13 people.”
Savor all those toasts.