Further confirmation of the ruthless passage of time came Tuesday morning, when it was reported that 86-year-old Arnold Palmer would not strike his ceremonial opening tee shot of the Masters on April 7.
After Palmer earlier had announced that he was curtailing his participation in this week’s eponymous PGA Tour stop in Orlando, it had been supposed that his duties at Augusta might be limited as well. Golf Channel’s Tim Rosaforte spoke with Palmer Tuesday, and the four-time Masters champion made it official that he was not able to launch this year’s first major with one of his trademark slashing drives.
As he was playing in 50 Masters from 1955-2004, breaking through as the game’s most dashing personality at the dawn of the television age, Palmer also became the supremely popular figure at the one-time indigo plantation off Washington Road. No one before or since has built such an intimate connection with the Masters galleries.
As Jason Day, the world’s No. 3-ranked player, succinctly assessed the man’s overall impact on the game Tuesday: “Arnold Palmer made golf sexy.”
In 2007 Palmer took the role of ritual Masters starter, hitting a single shot off the No. 1 tee, showing the field the way. He was joined by Jack Nicklaus in 2010 and by Gary Player in 2012.
After Palmer dislocated his shoulder in a fall four months before last year’s Masters, there were questions about his ability to pull off the tee shot. But there he was on that Thursday, hitting a single low line drive.
This year, he’ll pass. According to the Golf Channel report, Palmer was planning to go to Augusta and attend the champions’ dinner. Beyond that, his participation would be limited by how he was physically faring.
In a statement Tuesday, tournament chairman Billy Payne said: “I spoke with Arnold (Monday) and we certainly understand his decision. It makes no difference whether he hits a drive. He is a true legend in golf and will be welcomed as usual on the first tee with the other Masters honorary starters. It will be a great day.”
At the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week, the founder has made a few rare appearances. Palmer posed for a photo with volunteers on Sunday and visited the practice range Monday.
He will not conduct his usual pre-tournament press conference. That, like the ceremonial Masters shot, was an important bridge between the modern game and one of its most iconic figures.
Asked about the current state of his grandfather’s health, PGA Tour pro Sam Saunders recently told ESPN, “He’s doing OK. I don’t think his liveliness is quite there like it has been, but I think that’s pretty common for the age.”
“The one thing that will never go away is his toughness,” Saunders added. “He’s not just going to lay down and not do anything. He’ll be active and he’ll still be out there trying to push it. I wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
The message for all those who appreciate the classic player, whoever he is: Take nothing for granted.
I know one thing for certain. I am going to be as near as I can to that No. 1 tee box early on the Thursday morning of this Masters.