We arrived at the 2017 Masters Tournament to a Southern palace – a luxurious new Press Building the likes of which has never been seen anywhere else in the world.
The word “media” is bandied about as a dirty word these days in some circles, but the working press has never been considered an enemy of the state at Augusta National Golf Club.
It was the media – the printed press in particular – that helped build the Masters Tournament into the most popular golf tournament on the planet.
It was the media that circulated the legend of Bobby Jones and built him into a figure of such significant stature that his invitational on his new golf course was a must-attend event.
It was a sports-writing giant named Grantland Rice who attracted his friends and cronies to populate the new club struggling to make it in the wake of the Great Depression.
It was the media who stopped through Augusta on the way home from covering spring training to chronicle a golf tournament and amplify its early heroes with the “shot heard ’round the world.”
Augusta National’s founders always have honored the role of the media in making the Masters what it is today.
In March 1953, Chairman Clifford Roberts sent a letter to the press announcing “improvements” to the club, including a new 3,200-square-foot Quonset hut “to replace the tent used heretofore” and boasting “more comfortable facilities generally.”
Roberts also announced the clearing of a sloping vantage point next to the 11th fairway and behind the 12th tee that he called “a dream come true, for all patrons may now see all the shots on the ‘Water Loop’ holes 11, 12 and 13, where the top tournament thrills almost always occur.”
Roberts could thank a media member – Herbert Warren Wind – five years later for rebranding that “Water Loop” into “Amen Corner.” Wind’s original Sports Illustrated story from April 21, 1958, headlined “That Fateful Corner” is framed and displayed above the main arena of the new press building that dwarfs the old Quonset hut from which he wrote the story that’s echoed for nearly 60 years.
Which brings us on the eve of the 81st Masters week to Arnold Palmer, who provided the drama in Amen Corner that year to inspire Wind’s prose.
No greater friend to the media has ever been forged in any arena than Arnie. The print writers adored him. The cameras adored him even more. His arrival on the Masters scene coincided with the advent of golf on TV in 1956. It was a match made in heaven that elevated the first major of the year.
For the first time since 1955, Palmer will not be at the Masters. The King died in September, five months after lifting a thumbs-up on the first tee in lieu of leading off with an honorary tee shot.
Come Thursday, after Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player get things started after an emotional tribute to their lost “Big Three” friend, the Masters will be all about today’s players and their quest to win the green jacket.
But until those first tee shots, it’s Arnie’s enduring presence that will stand out more prominently than the remaining flashes of azalea blossoms amid the pines.
Past champions gathered Sunday to welcome kids competing in the fourth Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals all spoke of how they still feel Palmer’s spirit here and will dearly miss him in the Champions Locker Room and at Tuesday’s green jacket club dinner.
“I think we will have an amazing Champions Dinner,” said Nick Faldo, who will be wearing Palmer’s logo on his clothes all week. “I’m sure there will be stories of emotion, laughter and digs and we will be celebrating what he did for golf. It will be pretty cool.”
Palmer made a point in recent years to speak to his peers at the dinner, aware of his own mortality and how precious each year was.
“You could hear a pin drop in the room with everybody listening to him,” 2008 champion Trevor Immelman said. “And he was emotional. You could see how much it meant to him.”
“It was so heartfelt,” Ben Crenshaw said of Palmer’s last address to his fellow champions last April. “He basically said what this place meant to him and he was so sincere and thankful. … He wanted to thank each and every champion.”
Crenshaw still emcees the dinner, and he said there will be tribute paid to Tiger Woods’ 20th anniversary of his historic 1997 victory, but it will be Palmer and the empty chair he annually occupied that will dominate the night.
“It’s going to mostly be about Arnold,” Crenshaw said. “I saw Nick Faldo last night, and he said each one of us needs to reminisce about Arnold and say to each other how much he meant to us. I think that will be a nice occasion. It’s just hard to believe he’s not here having meant so much to this place. He touched us all.”
The current crop of major champions from Jordan Spieth to Rory McIlroy to Dustin Johnson will parade this week through a brand new interview room that puts every other briefing stage in the world to shame.
The only thing it will be missing is Arnold Palmer’s blessing. But what he started will continue as, for the 81st time, the media flocks to Augusta to tell golf’s greatest stories.