AUGUSTA – It was another of those only-at-the-Masters mornings, a bright chill and a poignant ceremony greeting the patrons as they streamed in as orderly as possible.
No running, please. No running.
Nothing begins here until the past is served. More this day than ever. Because this was the first Masters Thursday in more than six decades without an appearance by Arnold Palmer, a patron saint on these grounds, who died last year at the age of 87.
In his place was a lone, unoccupied chair posted at the center of the first tee, the totem around which the ceremonial opening tee shots would proceed.
It was but a twosome now reporting to hit their one shot and take their bows and then move aside to let the 81st Masters play through. Surviving Palmer as this tournament’s treasures were Jack Nicklaus, 77, and Gary Player, 81.
“Do I get a Mulligan now that I’m over 80?” Player asked as he approached his shot.
“Ouch,” Nicklaus said on his first warm-up swing, before striping a very proud and useful drive down the middle.
Just two old men on the first tee, bridging yesterday and today. Carrying on in the absence of Arnie.
Before their single swings, there would be no shortage of gestures and quiet tributes and tears.
The customers as well as the club members all wore buttons proclaiming: “I am a Member of ‘Arnie’s Army.’”
“He would have dropped over if he had seen one on Gary and me,” Nicklaus laughed.
On the arm of Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne was Palmer’s wife, Kit, twice cheered by the jam of people between the clubhouse and the tee box. Nicklaus and Palmer stood to the side, both wiping away tears.
Payne carefully folded one of Palmer’s green jackets, like the flag for a fallen soldier, and draped it over the back of the empty chair. Last year, a frail Palmer could not swing a club, but he sat and enjoyed this scene one last time.
“Arnold was a great stickler for manners, and I’ll never forget when he sat on the chair last year and they called his name. You know, a lot of people don’t stand up,” Player said later. “Arnold could hardly walk to the first tee and he stood up like this (lifting himself with his arms a few inches up from the chair), because he had been taught to stand up. And he gave a little wave. That was very touching to me. And I could see him doing it in that chair today. It’s funny how things come back to your mind.”
“Arnold Palmer was my friend. He was your friend,” Payne told the assembly.
“It hurts so bad that he is not here,” the Chairman said.
But of all the tributes none was more powerful than the simple, silent one Nicklaus offered before addressing his ball. In salute to Palmer, the six-time Masters champion raised his cap and looked heavenward and greeted his friend. All those in attendance with a pulse swallowed hard and felt the need to blink away the mist in their eyes.
Afterward, Nicklaus put it into words why this ceremony mattered.
“Arnold was sort of the guy that took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf,” he said.