Fit for a King: Arnold Palmer honored in moving tribute at Augusta National

April 6, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Preparing for sadness is such an odd thing, but that’s what Billy Payne had to do in the six months since the death of the King, Arnold Palmer.

The chairman of Augusta National had half a year to prepare his pre-Masters annual address to the crowd on the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club. Payne has made this address for more than a decade, but for obvious reasons, this one would be different than any other. He was nervous.

“It still hurts so bad that he is not here with us,” Payne said early Thursday morning moments before Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player struck the ceremonial opening tee shots at this 81st Masters.

Moments earlier Payne had arrived with Palmer’s widow, Kathleen, on his right arm, and Palmer’s green jacket on his left. He was surrounded by hundreds—almost all of them wearing Arnie’s Army pins—including Rickie Fowler and Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright.

Forgive the cliche, but it was a procession fit for a king. Fit for the King and all those who cherished him—from near or far—and everything he stood for.

Palmer’s green jacket was laid across the back of a white lawn chair, the same style chair Palmer had sat in by this tee box 12 months ago. “I could see him [sitting] in that chair today,” Player said afterward. “It’s funny how things come back to your mind.”

Player and Nicklaus were among Palmer’s closest comrades and fiercest rivals. They stood off to the side of the tee, waiting to hit the ceremonial tee balls. The air was chilly. The wind bit. But no one wanted this tribute to end.

“As he would walk to this very tee for this ceremony, we would point and shout above the cheers to our kids and grandkids,” Payne continued. “‘Look, look. It’s Arnold Palmer.’ The kids would radiate smiles because they knew they were seeing a legend. And you know what? He would always smile back.”

You needn’t understand golf to appreciate this moment. Player and Nicklaus wiped tears from their faces following a 10-second moment of silence. Player, 81 years young, hit his tee shot. Nicklaus was next.

On a stage where scripted lines are often used to entice laughter from the crowd, Nicklaus pushed his tee into the ground, took a step back and raised his hat up to the sky to salute his old friend. As the world looked on, it was the perfect way to kick off golf’s greatest event.

No doubt Arnie was watching, too.