Birth of an Army


By Sam Garfield

April 7, 1958

(Augusta, Georgia)—Golf has a new champion, and the staid old game may never be the same.

Amid the Monet-like landscape of Augusta National, a brazen, brawny lad from the hill country of western Pennsylvania painted his own colorful impression of the future of professional golf this past weekend. Displaying the grit of a heavyweight boxer, Arnold Palmer, with boyish good looks, wavy, Brylcreem hair, and forearms of a blacksmith, won his first Masters title. Palmer’s body blows to the pristine golf course –with its lush, hilly fairways, slippery, canted greens and thousands and thousands of red and white and pink azaleas– created the new art of golf. Picture this:

Brazen: Sunday afternoon, Palmer arrives at the Augusta’s 12th hole, a treacherous par-three, its narrow green protected by Rae’s creek. He leads the field by one stroke. Because of prevailing swirling winds, “Golden Bell” is the toughest par-three in tournament golf, say the pros. Palmer’s tee shot sails the green and the ball plugs in the soggy turf between the putting surface and the rear bunker. He calls for a rules official and says he intends to take relief without a penalty. (The Masters is being played under wet-weather rules…meaning a plugged ball could be lifted, cleaned and dropped without penalty.) No chance, the official tells him: “You don’t do that at Augusta.” Palmer doesn’t back down; he’s going to play two balls and appeal his fate to the tournament committee. “No sir,” the official says. Palmer then hits the embedded ball with a wedge, moving it only a few inches. He chips onto the green and two putts for a double-bogey five, temporarily losing his lead. But he’s not finished. He asks his caddy for a new ball…drops it where his original ball had plugged, and makes par. Like a fighter answering the bell, he confidently walks to the 13th tee. Shocked  fans, including his playing competitor, Ken Venturi, who had trailed Palmer by a stroke, believe Palmer’s boldness has just cost himself the championship.

Brawny: Augusta’s 13th, a par-five called “Azalea.” Palmer and Venturi barely look at each other on the tee; each man knows one of them has a one-stroke lead…but which one? Palmer surveys the dogleg-left hole. He takes a final puff on a cigarette, hitches his trousers, and slams a long drive down the middle of the fairway, far ahead of Venturi’s ball. As he approaches his tee shot he notices Bobby Jones –Augusta’s co-founder and the Masters’ patron saint– nearby in his green golf cart. It’s now or never, time to go-for-broke. Another drag on his cigarette, hitch of his pants. Palmer drills a three-wood to the rear of the green and drops an eighteen-foot putt for an eagle. On the 15th fairway, Palmer and Venturi see Jones approach in his cart. The committee has ruled in your favor, Jones tells Palmer; Venturi bogeys 15 and 16.

The ruling could become the most famous in professional golf. And it may be the catalyst for a new master of the game. The days of the stoic precision of Ben Hogan seem numbered. There’s a new kid on the block, a kid who drives the ball far, like a rising thunderbolt. And he’s got style—a more dramatic, powerful, go-for-broke style –the swashbuckling Palmer style. Like Joe DiMaggio, the stately Yankee Clipper, who gave way to the muscles, speed and youth of Mickey Mantle, Hogan must now walk the fairways as a fading figure in Palmer’s shadow.

The ruling spread quickly through the gallery –25,000 fans. A raucous roar shook the azaleas when the soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon who manned the huge Masters scoreboards changed Palmer’s 12th hole number from “5” to “3”. Fans cheered –“Arnie, Arnie”– as the soldiers posted the new score for Palmer, a U.S. Coast Guard veteran. It was all too much for Venturi, who bogeyed 14, 15 and 16. The lush acres of Augusta National, with its pines, dogwoods, magnolias and azaleas, were transformed on this spring afternoon into the new home of Arnie’s Army.

Palmer, who shot a 73 for a 284 total, was the leader in the clubhouse. But there were a few golfers still on the course who had a chance. He watched the last few pairings finish their final three holes on TV. A broad smile crossed his face when the final two golfers failed to birdie 18, giving Palmer a one-stroke Masters victory.

It seems fitting, the new champion learning his fate on TV. Arnold Palmer and television, the two seem like a perfect combination. His go-for-broke drama is where golf may be headed. And that makes for a perfect threesome: Arnie’s Army, television, and a new art form for golf.

Copyright © 2011. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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