Arnold Palmer may soon hang up the spikes for good — at least at the Masters.
While no announcement has been made, the 84-year-old Palmer just can’t get around the way he used to, or play golf anywhere close to the level he would like. With the possibility seeming closer to a reality, it made Wednesday’s tour of the nine-hole course in the Par-3 tournament by Palmer, 74-year-old Jack Nicklaus and 78-year-old Gary Player special for everyone that could see it — and even for those who couldn’t. Thousands of people moved around the course with the group with just the hopes of hearing, or being in the vicinity of, every shot.
The crowds were seven or eight deep from the tee to green. People held cameras aloft with the hopes of getting a glimpse of the Bear (Nicklaus), King (Palmer) or Black Knight (Player). And when they got their shot, those people became part of a rolling standing ovation.
The noise made it easy to know where the trio of legends were on the course, and for those who may have arrived late, all they had to do was wait until Nicklaus or Player made a birdie. The roars that rumbled through the trees brought back memories of Nicklaus shooting 30 on the back nine in 1986 to win his sixth green jacket, or Player’s equally impressive charge in 1978 to win his third.
It’s hard to imagine if the great players of today — Tiger Woods, Adam Scott or Rory McIlroy, for example — would be willing to put themselves in front of the fans with deteriorating skills. Their version of the PGA Tour has become so corporate, media-conscious and sterile that it’s hard to relate to the fans on a personal level.
That’s what Nicklaus, Palmer and Player have done so well for so long. That’s why it was so nice that the winners of a combined 34 major championships and 13 Masters went for an afternoon stroll Wednesday, as people of all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities came to watch.
“It’s because of the tradition,” said Ben Ried, a transplanted New Yorker, who flew with his wife, Laurel, from their home in London to come to the Masters.
Ried and his wife are avid golfers with handicaps in the teens. But they are only 35 years old and neither were born when Palmer or Player won their final major. They were 7 when Nicklaus won his.
The Rieds were at Augusta, fighting the crowd and even sprinting ahead with the hopes of catching a better glimpse of the living legends.
“And it could be the last time we have a chance to see them together like this,” Ben Ried said.
That thought also crossed the minds of the Shepherd family from Waynesboro.
Though they live only 35 or so miles from Augusta National, they had never been lucky enough to get tickets to the Masters until this year. And when they did, topping the to-do list for Scott Shepherd, his wife, Sydney, and their teenage daughters, Louisa and Joyce, was seeing Nicklaus, Palmer and Player.
“I’ve heard about them all my life,” Louisa Shepherd said. “It was really neat to see them all together.”
Scott Shepherd tried to use an analogy that the trio of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player were like great thoroughbred racehorses.
“It’s like seeing Secretariat and ... ,” Shepherd said, stopping when he realized the great race horses of past eras were dead.
Laurel Ried’s analogy may be a little closer to home.
“It was like seeing three former presidents together,” she said.
Nicklaus, Palmer and Player will open the 78th Masters tournament today as honorary starters. It will be the third time they have performed the ceremonial role together. Hopefully, it isn’t the last, but if it is, let’s hope they all have long productive lives still ahead of them, like the former presidents still living.
Hail to the Chiefs.
All three of them.
John Bednarowski is sports editor of the Marietta Daily Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jbednarowski.