Palmer’s legacy remembered during Honorary Starter ceremony
“Not driving this year, but forever a part of the Masters tradition, please join me in a welcome, a salute, and a heartfelt thank you to our four-time Masters champion, Mr. Arnold Palmer.”
One year ago, Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne delivered that statement during the annual Honorary Starter ceremony. Upon introduction, Palmer rose from his chair, aggressively lifted his right thumb and waved to his army.
Fast forward a year and Payne’s statement from 2016 was put into action: Arnold Palmer, forever a part of the Masters tradition. For the first time since 1955, Palmer – who died in September – wasn’t on hand for the opening day of the Masters. But The King was there.
By 7:30 a.m., hundreds of patrons had surrounded the No. 1 tee box, most donning commemorative buttons that read, “I am a member of Arnie’s Army, Est. 1959.” Ten minutes later, Kit Palmer, Arnold’s widow, appeared from the clubhouse, arm-in-arm with Payne.
With her husband’s green jacket in tow, Palmer fought back emotions while many in attendance failed to do the same.
“I cried last year and promised myself I wouldn’t do it again,” said Bethany Smith, 76, a longtime Palmer supporter. “I lied.”
As Palmer and Payne made the short walk to No. 1, the gallery clapped, while she graciously nodded to onlookers.
At the tee, The King’s jacket was placed on an empty white chair.
“For the first time in many, many decades someone is obviously missing from the first tee,” Payne announced to the crowd. “The almost unbearable sadness that we all feel by the passing of Arnold Palmer is only surpassed by the love and affection for him.”
Nicklaus and Player hit their honorary drives, but Thursday morning belonged to Palmer.
Rickie Fowler arrived at Augusta National about three hours before his tee time and watched the ceremony with Barbara Nicklaus.
“It was an emotional morning,” Fowler said. “It’s one I’ll never forget.”
Before Nicklaus hit his drive, he removed his hat and gave a nod toward the heavens. Nicklaus, the six-time Masters champion, then wiped away tears before placing his shot down the first fairway.
“When Jack did that,” Fowler said. “It choked up all of us.”
After welcoming patrons to the Masters, Payne immediately shifted his tone. The chairman spoke in length about Palmer, calling him “my friend” and saying Palmer “was always giving.” He then asked for a moment of silence.
“Arnold Palmer was more than the King,” Payne said. “Arnold Palmer was my friend. He was your friend. Despite all of his fame and fortune, he always had time for all of us.”