Arnold Palmer had long since said his "goodbyes" to the other majors, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before he called it quits at his beloved Masters. Yet when the 72-year-old legend finally made it official Thursday that after 48 consecutive years this would be his last year competing at the Augusta National, it was still a shock.
No one except perhaps Bobby Jones has had more of an impact on popularizing the Masters, and golf as a sport, than Palmer who is one of the game's greatest competitors. Jones once said of Palmer, "If I ever had to have one putt to win a title for me, I'd rather have Arnold Palmer hit for me than anyone else."
In mid-century when television was starting to become a mass entertainment medium, Palmer burst on the scene as one of the nation's most talented and charismatic athletes. It all started in 1958 with a stunning eagle on the 13th hole which began his famous charge that won him his first Masters.
Palmer's corkscrew swing, clutch putting, swashbuckling come-from-behind victories, and domination of the game between 1958 and 1964 when he won seven majors, including four green jackets, brought tens of thousands of new fans to the game. Players, too.
His most loyal band of followers - "Arnie's Army" - followed him from tournament to tournament, hole to hole, ever mindful that "The King" was never out of the hunt. Another thrilling charge was always possible.
Even his losses could be packed with drama such as the 1961 Masters when he had victory in hand going up the 18th hole until he hit into the bunker, double-bogeyed and Gary Player was suddenly being fitted for the green jacket.
In 48 years and 146 rounds, Palmer came to know many of his "army" personally. In his Masters swan song this week, after nearly every shot he walked over to the ropes to kiss women, shake hands with men and enjoy the limelight one more time.
"I could probably tell you the first names of thousands of them," Palmer said. "I either knew them by their first names or I knew their relatives."
With his salad days as a competitor on the main tour long behind him, "The King" became a successful businessman and ambassador for the game he loves. We hope he will continue in those capacities for many years to come - including perhaps becoming a ceremonial starter at the Masters. It's always nice to keep your hand in.
But, says Palmer, he's not altogether finished with competitive golf. He still plans to play in senior tour majors and a few other events. So "The King" is not abdicating just yet. We're glad of that.
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