Gentleman Arnie makes it 50 and out at Augusta

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The Independent Online

This Friday, a 75-year-old man will walk up a grassy incline in Georgia and be greeted with sport's equivalent of a ticker-tape welcome. Arnold Palmer will have completed his 50th and last Masters.

This Friday, a 75-year-old man will walk up a grassy incline in Georgia and be greeted with sport's equivalent of a ticker-tape welcome. Arnold Palmer will have completed his 50th and last Masters.

He will be lauded not because of what he has just achieved, nor for his past triumphs, but because of what he represents. Palmer is the golfing Everyman erected into a legend by his own talents, honest sweat, and a spirit of adventure on the golf course that would not have been out of place on the frontier.

If the wagon train was surrounded by Cherokees and there was only the slimmest chance of someone getting through to raise the alarm at Fort Lincoln, it would have been pioneer Palmer who would have volunteered to try. And when he pulled it off, and the back-slappers were gathering round him, he would have tilted his head and smiled with his usual aw-shucks modesty.

It matters that he came first to the Masters, in 1955, not, as most do now, a graduate of comfort, but as a steelworker's son driving a Ford jalopy to which was hitched the trailer he and his wife lived in. They parked on the only site they could afford, next to a drive-in movie house; after all, he had yet to earn a bean on tour. That April, Augusta changed all that, as it was to change his whole life; after an indifferent start, he made a 69 in the final round, finished 10th, and so earned his first cheque: for the princely sum of $676.

For his fourth visit, in 1958, he drove through the night to make Tuesday's practice round. After it, in the locker-room, he overheard Ben Hogan say to Jackie Burke: "Tell me something, Jackie, how the hell did Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?" It hurt. More to the point, it stung - stung so hard that, in his determination to prove Hogan wrong, he won the event. It was his first major championship.

Two years later, no outside boosts to his confidence were necessary. Palmer had won four times already that spring, and an opening round of 67 gave him the lead, which he held until the middle of the fourth round. Then he wobbled. By the time he reached the 17th tee he needed a birdie just to force a play-off. An indifferent eight-iron left Palmer some 28ft from the hole, and his nerve was now visibly shredding. Three times he settled over the curling uphill putt, and three times he backed off the ball. The fourth time he didn't. He struck it true. Tied for the lead, one hole to play.

His drive up the 18th hole was good, his six-iron approach even better. It left him five feet from the hole. This time there were no second glances. He sunk the putt to be the first man ever to birdie the last two holes to win the Masters.

Two years later the title was his again. Two birdies in the last three holes to get into a play-off, three behind at the turn, but then a charging inward half of 31 shots and a win by three strokes. In 1964, he doubled that margin, winning by six in normal time. It was to prove his last success in the majors.

And then there were the collapses: the watery triple-bogey at the 12th hole in 1959, and double-bogey via a greenside bunker at the 18th in 1961 when a par would have given him the title. And never a club banged into the ground, never an interview shunned. Always the regular guy. Not obsessed like Player, golden like Nicklaus, or a chosen one like Woods.

But a regular guy who, for a few, short years many rounds ago, thrilled millions by the triumph of his straightforward virtues.

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