Arnie’s poignant Masters appearance

Arnold Palmer is flanked by his legendary contemporaries, Jack Nicklaus (left) and Gary Player. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Arnold Palmer is flanked by his legendary contemporaries, Jack Nicklaus (left) and Gary Player, during Thursday’s ceremonial start to the Masters. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

AUGUSTA – For one more year the three pillars of Masters past made it to the first tee Thursday morning.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player did not arrive exactly in a familiar manner. This time the 86-year-old Palmer rode a cart for the short trip from clubhouse to tee box, his progress marked by the applause in his wake.

Two days before Nicklaus had tried to talk his old rival into trying to hit just one ball, even if it was only to putt it, as the two of them had each year since 2010 as honorary Masters starters. “No, I’m good,” Palmer eventually answered.

With a helper on one arm to steady him, Palmer made his way to a seat at rear. He smiled and gave the thumbs up all the way. And when Palmer sat, lip-readers in the crowd could make out his one word response to the affection shown him at a place where, long ago, he had won four times. “Wonderful,” Arnie said.

Player, who in 2012 joined this distinctly Masters ceremony of golfing titans hitting a single tee ball to signal the start of the season’s first major, was off first.

The South African pulled a bright yellow ball and plugged it into the perfect carpet of grass.

“My eyes aren’t so good anymore,” Player said, explaining why he brought a muni club-colored ball to America’s most famous golf course.

“Wait a minute,” exclaimed Nicklaus, at the first sight of the gaudy thing.

“That ball must go farther,” he continued, in mock indignation.

From his chair, Palmer rocked in laughter.

Palmer had begun hitting the ceremonial drive before either of these two, starting back in 2007. Now, in ill health, his balance betraying him, he was a spectator to the spectacle – a part of it certainly, but no longer in the middle of it. Clearly, he never will bring a club to these proceedings again. Those ringing the tee five deep and more were justified in wondering if they would see next year on the first day of the Masters.

“I think he was delighted to be out there. I think we were delighted to have him there,” Nicklaus would say later. “I think both Gary and I felt it was more about Arnold this morning than anything else, and that was just fine.”

Recounted Player afterward, “To come here today and to be on the tee with Arnold being a part of it, it was gratifying and sad, because everything shall pass. But it was nice to have him on the tee. I dedicated my first tee shot to him in respect.”

Back to the tee Thursday morning, where Nicklaus prepared for his one shot. Here was the true master of the Masters, the six-time champion, the proud and accomplished man who went by the burly nickname “The Golden Bear.”

For the briefest moment, the morning sun lit up his face just so, and the tear running down his cheek caught the light and sparkled just before he turned away.

“I don’t know if I’m crying or I’m ooooooold,” he told the gallery as his wiped his face.

He knew it was both.

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