Time to reactivate Arnie’s Army. Reveille is at 8:05 a.m. Your presence is requested around the first tee and fairway of Augusta National Golf Club.
Despite failing health that will keep him from taking his signature lashing swing at the ball, Arnold Palmer will be on the first tee with his Big Three mates Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player to begin the 80th Masters Tournament as honorary starters.
Anyone with a badge who cares anything about the Masters and golf should be present, because there are no guarantees in life that it will ever happen again.
“If you have a chance to do it, you should be there,” 1987 Masters champion Larry Mize said.
Masters Chairman Billy Payne was sounding the bugle for Arnie’s Army to assemble in the morning.
“Thankfully we have Arnold Palmer joining us,” he said. “He’s a hero. He’s my hero, who needs no club in his hands to receive the recognition and the love that he so richly deserves. His mere presence is worthy of our celebration, and so we look forward, once again, to this wonderful ceremony to begin our tournament.”
Augusta National has always been a living history museum during the Masters, with the greatest who ever played the game returning year after year just to be a part of it. All the past champions hold a special place in the hearts of fans, but for 61 years there has been no more reassuring figure than Palmer on the club’s grounds every April.
“He’s done so much for us,” said three-time major winner Nick Price. “He made the Masters. I’m telling you, he made the Masters. There’s no doubt. When he won in 1958, the tournament was only 24 years old.”
Arnie’s Army was born in 1958 at Augusta. The soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon were offered free admission for the first time, and the club recruited them to run the scoreboards. The servicemen quickly embraced the charismatic Coast Guard veteran, swarming in his wake as he charged to a one-shot victory over Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins.
By the next year, “Arnie’s Army” showed up on one of the Masters scoreboards, and his legion swelled as he won four green jackets every even-numbered year between 1958 and 1964.
Palmer’s era of dominance happened to coincide with the advent of golf on television, and his magnetism came through on camera.
“When he came on, and television came on, it was a mix made in heaven,” Price said. “Arnold Palmer, television and golf. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus obviously did a lot, but it was Arnold who had that magnetism that brought everyone together.”
Palmer connected with the golfing public like no player ever had. You were simply drawn to his energy and charisma and bravado.
What has Palmer meant to the game?
“I would say what hasn’t he done for the game would be easier to explain,” said past PGA Tour winner Billy Kratzert, an eight-time Masters participant. “He might have been looking at the whole crowd, but when he looked over there you kind of felt he was looking at you directly. To have that sense connecting to the people, that was huge. You connect to the people, you win major championships, you win other golf tournaments, you’re friends with presidents, celebrities like Bob Hope, club companies, first guy with a jet. What hasn’t he done? Everyone said Tiger (Woods) made golf cool. Well, that’s probably true. But the guy who piqued the interest of everyone about the game and brought it to where the golf is pretty cool (was Arnie). I’m watching this guy hit from under the tree and making birdie, he’s got that Pall Mall hanging out of his mouth and he’s hanging around Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope, that’s pretty cool.”
Palmer has given and given to the game for six decades, setting the original bar for success before setting a constant example for how every tour player who came after him should conduct himself both on and off the course. Other champions have come along and made incremental contributions to golf’s growth globally, but it’s Palmer who got the ball rolling at the Masters and beyond.
“He made the modern game,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North. “He’s the man that put us on the map. We said for every dollar we make, we should give 25 cents to Arnold.”
So what do we owe Palmer in return? Our presence en masse around that first tee Thursday morning will do. Players, fans, members, media, it’s time to render to the King the one thing we have worth giving – our love and appreciation.
If 86-year-old Arnold Palmer is going to make the effort to be on that first tee first thing in the morning, the least we can do is be there to honor him the way he’s honored us for so long.
Arnie’s Army cannot not back down from its obligation. It is our duty to show up to thank the man who made the Masters.