Golf Legend Arnold Palmer Returns to Masters as Honorary Starter

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Time to muster Arnie's Army again, this time for a very short walk.

Arnold Palmer, the four-time Masters champion who played for the 50th and final time three years ago, will hit the opening tee shot Thursday and become the seventh honorary starter in tournament history.

"The time has come," Palmer said Tuesday. "I think all of you know what Augusta means to me."

Palmer was the dominant player of the 1960s, winning seven major championships. But it was his personality that altered the game forever — and never was it more evident than at Augusta National.

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He would visit with fans in the gallery as he played, making them feel as if they knew him personally. When fans applauded, he'd look them in the eye and wave. He was their friend and their idol, the guy next door and the competitor they dreamed of being.

Back in the '50s, soldiers at nearby Fort Gordon would use their vacation to volunteer at the Masters, and they always pulled for Palmer.

"That's where the original `Arnie's Army' came from. They said, `We are soldiers in Arnie's Army,'" Palmer said. "That's when the signs started."

His fans came to Augusta armed with signs touting their loyalty, and the trend spread quickly to other tournaments where Palmer played. Soon enough, though, the PGA Tour and Augusta National put a stop to it.

"The PGA Tour and Augusta jointly said, `Hey, no more signs,'" Palmer said. "It was getting obnoxious. There were so many signs and they were holding them up."

The signs may have disappeared, but the affection for Palmer never waned. Anytime he teed it up at Augusta, hundreds lined up to greet him. They followed him around the course, cheering his every move, and it hardly mattered if he finished at the top of the leaderboard or near the bottom.

Now 77, Palmer last made the cut in 1983. When Augusta National gave some aging champions the not-so-subtle message that they should stop playing, Palmer said the 2002 Masters would be his last.

The Masters softened its stance, though, and Palmer did, too. He decided 2004 — his 50th anniversary at Augusta — was the perfect time to leave.

But when it was suggested he become an honorary starter, Palmer would have none of it. He was a star, not a warm-up act.

"I didn't want to jump the gun and do it too early," he said. "It was a hard one to stop playing. And I knew I should. It wasn't a question of continuing for any reason other than pride, I suppose. When I quit, I just wanted to think about not playing in the Masters and get over that, and then I would be ready (to be an honorary starter.)

"And I'm ready."

He dropped hints last month at Bay Hill that he would seriously consider it under new chairman Billy Payne, and Payne didn't hesitate to sign him up.

"We are absolutely delighted that Arnold Palmer will once again be on the first tee at Augusta, a place where he belongs," Payne said.

Celebrating past champions is as much a part of the fabric of the Masters as the green jackets they wear.

Palmer got his first invite to Augusta after winning the 1954 U.S. Amateur title, and he was paired that very first day with Gene Sarazen. Palmer was only 25 then, and playing with The Squire made an impact on him that resonates to this day.

"It was a day that I will always remember," Palmer said. "As soon as we talked about being honorary starter, that first day that I ever played here was something that came straight to my mind."

Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod were the first honorary starters in 1963. Byron Nelson and Sarazen started doing it in 1981, with Ken Venturi filling in for Nelson for one year in 1983. Sam Snead joined Nelson and Sarazen in 1984.

Snead in 2002 was the last honorary starter; he died a month later.

Asked on Tuesday if this will become a tradition, Palmer said he'd have to ask Payne. The words were barely out of Palmer's mouth when Payne leaned forward and emphatically said, "Yes."

Palmer's great rival at Augusta, Jack Nicklaus, stopped playing the Masters in 2005. Another friendly foe, Gary Player, will tie Palmer's record this year with his 50th appearance, and hopes to make it 51 next year.

Golf fans everywhere would cherish the opportunity to see the three together at Augusta once again, even if it were only for one shot. But don't ask Palmer to arrange that tee time.

"To let them join me? Or to tell them to stay the hell away?" he said, drawing loud laughs. "Hey, they don't call me when they want to do something. I'm not going to call them."

Simply talking about the Masters on Tuesday was enough to make Palmer a little wistful, and he knows the emotions will be much, much greater when he steps inside the ropes a bit before 8 a.m. Thursday. So many of The King's best memories are here, wrapped up in the azaleas and the whispering pines.

So what happens if he rips one down the middle? Would he be tempted to keep going?

Palmer grinned.

"I'm not too smart, but I'm not stupid," he said. "I think I'll just let it go, wherever it goes."

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