Arnie's encore a big deal

Ken Fidlin -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:34 AM ET

Next week, Arnold Palmer will play his final Masters tournament. And if you think you've heard that before, you're right. Two years ago, amid some undisguised irritation at what he considered a high-handed age-limit policy change, Palmer announced the 2002 Masters, his 48th in a row, would be his last.

Tears were shed, some of them Arnie's, most of them not. Memories were shared and Arnie's Army followed their King on one last nostalgic march through all his favourite haunts, finishing with an emotional farewell at the 18th at the end of the second round.

But royalty has its privilege and, after a pointed letter penned by Palmer, Augusta's deep thinkers saw the error of their ways. The policy reverted to the way it had been forever: Any past champion could play the Masters as long as he wanted. The only stipulation, and it largely is unspoken, is that each player has been urged to examine his own ability to be at least mildly competitive.

In the wake of that decision, Palmer looked ahead to 2004 and decided that 50 was a nice round number to wrap it all up.

That's 50, as in years. Consecutively.

Palmer, who will be 75 in September, first drove up Magnolia Lane in 1955, with his new bride, Winnie, at his side and when he first laid eyes on the magnificence of Augusta National, he could not have envisioned how this gorgeous piece of land would become so intertwined with his own career.

He won the green jacket four times and, in one 10-year stretch from 1958 to 1967, he finished lower than fourth only once. He is not its most decorated champion -- that is Jack Nicklaus -- but he is its most beloved.

"I think it's going to be exciting for me and it's going to be somewhat sentimental," he said in a recent interview at the Bay Hill Invitational. "It's an opportunity to say goodbye to all the fans who have been so supportive and who have been the reason I have played as long as I have."

The people -- and Palmer always has been a man of the people -- were drawn by his charisma and a smoldering intensity that translated into dozens of Sunday charges to victory over his career. Over the years, as the victories became fewer and the scores became higher, the people never left him, nor he them.

"They have been fantastic. They have also been protective," he said. "Somebody once asked me 'How do you account for this large gallery when you're not playing worth a damn?' And I said 'Well, hell, the ones I don't know by their first names are relatives.'

"I'm kidding, of course. But I'm only kidding a little. In that gallery, I could probably tell you the first names of a thousand of them."

The blatantly opportunistic release of Ken Venturi's new book, which casts aspersions on Palmer's first Masters win in 1958, threatened to dampen this last hurrah, but it seems only Venturi's reputation has suffered.

In that final round, Palmer was leading Venturi, his playing partner, by one shot when Palmer's tee shot at the par-3 12th plugged on a slope behind the green. Overnight rains had led officials to allow players whose balls were embedded to lift and drop without penalty.

A referee denied that opportunity to Palmer after a heated discussion. After he holed out for a double-bogey five, Palmer went back and dropped, getting up and down for a three with the second ball, then appealed to the rules committee.

Two holes later he got his verdict.

"I think of the ruling that I got at 12 and I remember like it was yesterday," Palmer said at last year's Masters. "I remember every detail of it. After 12, I eagled 13 and parred 14 but all the while, the one thing in the back of my mind was 'They could rule against me.'

"When I saw (rules committee chair) John Winters walking out on the 15th hole, I was a little frightened. I remember his words: "Mr Palmer, the committee has ruled in your favour. You were right.' That's the end of the story."

Not quite. Palmer beat Venturi by a shot. Now 50 years later, Venturi is setting a world record for belated sour grapes.

The controversy will be a non-issue next week.

Nothing so petty will spoil Arnie's encore.

He is, now and forever, The King.


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