Former Kansas City Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski wrote about Arnold Palmer numerous times during his tenure in KC.
Sometimes the dateline was the United Kingdom. Others, Augusta, Ga., site of the Masters. Or even Kansas City.
On the day that Palmer passed away at the age of 87, we went back and found a few of those pieces.
Arnie at Augusta is a sight worth seeing (April 8, 1999)
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Some years ago, I promised all my Augusta friends to never, ever get all mushy about the Masters. It was one of those typical Augusta summer days, you know, temperature in the 200s, warm enough to microwave burritos in your Buick. “From Here to Eternity, “ was coming to the Augusta theaters, even though this was 1994. Palmetto bugs the size of Schwarzeneggers wandered the streets, groveling for loose change.
“Don’t become one of them,” friends warned.
“Them,” in this case meant the Masters poets — sportswriters, who every year wandered into our Augusta for one week and wrote sonnets about the blooming dogwoods and the color of the azaleas and the rebirth of spring as seen through the barbed-wire fences of Augusta National.
They all got it wrong. We knew a very different Augusta, a friendly place, a hard-working place, but also a place where all the radio stations played classic rock, where the only spot to eat after 10 p.m. was “The Waffle House, “ where the azaleas died just moments after the last William Blake sportswriter left.
So, I promised. But Wednesday, something beautiful happened. Arnold Palmer walked through a crowd.
There are so many superficial beauties at Augusta. The gorgeous course lies on a street of fast-food restaurants and strip malls. The most beautiful tree on the course, the sprawling oak tree in front of the clubhouse, is held together by thick wires. The deep blue tinge of Rae’s Creek is tinted with dye. Even the azaleas are kept under wraps, frozen if necessary, so that they will blossom right as the Masters approaches.
Yes, when you’ve lived here, you see all the strings, you know all the potholes, you don’t let yourself get pulled in to the poetry.
Then, Wednesday, Arnold Palmer wandered through the crowd. He smiled. He shook hands. He signed autographs. He chatted with people. He was radiant.
“Got another victory in ya, Arnie?” someone called to him.
“We’ll have to see, won’t we?” he called back.
He looked so good. He looks so happy. The Masters invites its champions to return, year after year, and so they come back long after their golf swings have abandoned them. Palmer has not made the cut here in 15 years. He has not been in serious contention in more than 30. But he always comes back, smiles, waves, talks to the people. He always looks like the luckiest man on earth.
“Why do you guys want to talk to me?” he asked the reporters who gather around him. And he laughed, and everyone around him laughed, and it was splendid. Palmer comes from another time, another place, when sports were still fun, when it was OK to laugh even during the game. During the day, someone asked Tiger Woods why he mutters and stomps around when playing poorly, why he doesn’t just smile on the course a little more, and Woods launched into a sad spiel about how he will be himself, regardless of what anyone thinks.
“People say that I look like I’m not having fun out there because I’m not smiling, “ Woods said. “Well, I’m focused. I’m trying to win. And you can’t always smile when you’re trying to win.”
Arnold Palmer has won a whole lot more than Tiger Woods so far. He won with grace and style and a smile, and he doesn’t buy into Woods’ belief that sullenness and slamming clubs shows intensity.
“He’s got the world in his hands, “ Palmer said earlier this year. “All he has to do is enjoy it, laugh and enjoy the ability that he has.”
Palmer has done that all his life. He had a few years on top of the world, when no shot was impossible, when no lead was safe, when he charged from behind with his army of fans screaming behind him. He had the time of his life. Then, his putting abandoned him, and his game lost some of the magic, and you know what? He still had a blast even when he could not win.
Wednesday, surrounded by azaleas and dogwoods and the most wonderful golf course on earth, Arnold Palmer wandered through the crowd, and they shouted to him, they reached out to touch him, they blew kisses to him, and he acted surprised, as if it had never happened to him before. He smiled so big, like he always does at Augusta this time of year.
“Isn’t life beautiful?” he asked. “Well, isn’t it?”
Mercy, what a lineup: These guys would pull Tiger’s tail (June 19, 2002)
People came to Blue Hills Country Club to see Mount Rushmore. To see living history. And there they were. Nicklaus. Palmer. Player. Trevino. Watson. No need for first names. They were here for the Children’s Mercy Hospital Golf Classic. They have won 48 major golf championships. They are what you would call first-ballot hall of famers - the only five who are still alive.
And who knows? It might be the last time all five are together.
So people came to regard them, to admire them, to cherish them, pretty much the way people cherish the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Like they were museum pieces. Only, they’re not. They’re flesh and blood and fire. Still.
“Do you wish you were 30 years younger so you could take on this Tiger Woods kid?” Tom Watson asked Arnold Palmer.
“You bet your (bottom) I do,” Palmer replied.
They just can’t tolerate the way players today bow to Tiger Woods. Hey, all five appreciate and admire Tiger. They think he’s fabulous. He is, after all, a combination of these five men. He works out like Gary Player. He endlessly beats balls on the practice range like Lee Trevino. The cameras love him, the way cameras loved Arnold Palmer. He can do magic around the greens as only a young Watson could.
And, of course, he has so much of Jack Nicklaus in him. He has the same steely determination. The same thirst for pressure. Tiger Woods overpowers golf courses the way Nicklaus did when he was young. And, like Nicklaus, Woods has the rarest ability in sports, the power to eliminate every single thought except one: Win.
“Who cares what the golf course is like?” Nicklaus responds when asked whether Muirfield — site of the British Open — suits Tiger Woods’ game. “I never understood that. You play the golf course. You make it suit your game.”
Read that again. That quote says everything about Jack Nicklaus.
That’s exactly how Tiger Woods feels, too.
Of course, not everybody feels like that in today’s multimillion-dollar world of golf. And it really ticks off these proud men. Palmer, for instance, is incensed that Rocco Mediate is planning to skip the British Open because the course “does not fit his game.”
“Boo hoo,” Palmer says. “I’m all choked up.”
Then, Gary Player goes off on an unidentified player, obviously Phil Mickelson, who, after finishing third at the Masters and second at the U.S. Open, sounded positively giddy when being interviewed.
“If I lost, I would be so (ticked off) I wouldn’t talk to anybody for two weeks, “ Player says. “Can you imagine being happy about finishing second? The only person who remembers if you finish second is your wife and your dog. And that’s only if you have a good wife and a good dog.”
Trevino says, “I don’t know if the players really feel that way, like second place is good enough. But it’s the wrong message to send.”
Then Nicklaus wraps it up simply.
“They already gave up,” he says, and he shakes his head.
And you can see how much each of these five men wishes he could go back in time and take on Tiger Woods. Trevino talks about how he would hit balls until 11 at night. Nicklaus pounds the table. Palmer smiles and nods. They all know in their hearts that their games have blown away with the years. They can’t (A) Putt. (B) Hit the ball where they’re aiming. (C) Swing a club without feeling shooting pain all over their bodies. (D) All of the above.
But, when they talk about Tiger, their competitive juices flow again. Their hearts beat faster again.
“If I was about 150 years younger,” Paul Newman says in one movie, “you’d be in trouble, young lady.”
“I would love,” Tom Watson says, “to try and beat that kid when I was a kid.”
Gary Player tells the story about when he taught Elvis Presley to play golf. He told the king of rock ‘n’ roll that it was all in the hips. “Hips?” Elvis asked. “Aw, baby, I’m your man.”
Oh, yes, they tell stories, half of them lies, the other half just made up. They joke. They kibitz. Palmer prepares to drive the ball and asks Nicklaus whether the ball is too close to him. Nicklaus says no. Then Palmer hits the ball. “Now, “ Nicklaus says after it lands, “the ball is too close to you.”
They talk about money. Gary Player still has the first check he ever made. He had finished 25th at a tournament. The check is for $26.
“My first check,” Nicklaus says, “was for $33.33. That’s inflation.”
Player mocks Trevino for his three wives, or, more specifically, his three mothers-in-law. Watson teaches the importance of the spine angle when swinging a golf club. Trevino and Nicklaus reminisce about old wars. The five laugh like old men. They bicker like children.
“I think you pull the club back with your left hand,” Watson says.
“I totally disagree,” Nicklaus says.
And then, for a moment, they all pause when Jordan Webster is introduced. She rushes out and hugs Watson. Jordan’s mother, Jaymie, was in a car accident a few weeks before her due date. Jordan was born prematurely. She was 3 pounds, 13 ounces. She has needed a liver and small-intestine transplant. She is here, 5 years old, smiling like it’s Christmas. Tuesday’s event, after everything, could raise almost a million dollars for Children’s Mercy.
“That’s why we’re here,” Watson says, only he doesn’t say it at all because he’s crying. Everybody is.
They all think Tiger Woods will win the Grand Slam this year. Well, they wouldn’t quite bet on it yet, though Palmer did make some money betting on Tiger Woods against the field in the U.S. Open. “I was never worried for one second, “ he says.
No, they’re not sure Tiger Woods will win the Grand Slam - that is, all four of golf’s major championships. He needs only the last two now, the British Open in five weeks and the PGA Championship in August. They’re not sure.
But they definitely think he will.
“He’s just so much better than everyone else,” Nicklaus says.
“Who is going to beat him?” Palmer asks.
“He needs just a little bit of luck,” Player says. “But only a little.”
And they all wish they could be there to stop him. Watson will play the British Open, and at 52, he still has this dream about beating Tiger Woods at Muirfield. It’s a fading dream, perhaps. But it’s there. For the four others, though, the dream is simply gone, left, like all dreams, to the young.
“Tiger has them all buffaloed,” Nicklaus says of today’s players, and again he shakes his head. Nicklaus is still the greatest golfer of all time. Nobody would argue that yet. Nicklaus won 18 major championships, still 10 more than Woods. But more, Nicklaus won them in a golden era, against great golfers who wouldn’t back down to him.
“Could somebody come along and beat Tiger?” he asks. “Sure. Somebody could. But do they want to work as hard as Tiger? Do they want to prepare themselves as much as Tiger? I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
He pauses. Around him are Palmer, Player, Trevino and Watson, the four men who took so many major championships away from him.
“I never played in a tournament with these four guys and thought ‘I don’t have a chance,’” Nicklaus says. “And the same is true for all of them. That’s the difference. If you don’t believe you can win, you won’t win. We believed.”
Nearby, Tom Watson nods.
“In our hearts,” Watson says, “we still believe.”
Palmer will be sure to make Masters finale memorable (April 12, 2002)
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Arnold Palmer stood in the middle of the first fairway Thursday at the Masters. And he believed. He absolutely believed he was going to hit the best 3-wood he ever hit in his whole life. He was going to smash that ball, knock it on the green, thrill the crowd, just the way it was 40 years ago.
Seventy-two years old? Did someone say he was 72 years old?
Well, he would show that son of a gun what a 72-year-old man can do.
Palmer swung as hard as he could. Then Palmer always did. The ball skimmed on a low line drive, the classic Palmer shot. It rolled to the front of the green. The crowd cheered like crazy. They always did for the King.
“I could tell you the first names of thousands of those people, “ Palmer would say.
And in that instant, with all his friends cheering, with the ball on the green, Arnold Palmer believed that it might just go on forever. He had been thinking of calling it quits. He had been thinking that it was time to stop playing the Masters. But as he walked up to the green, cheers ringing, all those thoughts were gone. Palmer was thinking about birdies. He was thinking about winning. He was thinking about being young all over again.
Then Palmer rolled his putt through the green.
Funny thing, age. Palmer ended up 4-putting the first hole. The loud cheers hushed into respectful applause. Hope faded into a double-bogey.
And Arnold Palmer knew for sure.
“I like to think there are a couple more good rounds in my body,” he would say. “And maybe there are. ... But as far as playing here, it’s over. It’s done.”
Today will be the last time around the Masters for Arnold Palmer. He feels a little bit sad about that. But only a little bit. It’s been a heck of a ride. Palmer made golf exhilarating and fun and even a little bit dangerous. It was a country-club sport for rich people until Arnie came to the Masters, smoking Liggett and Meyers cigarettes, slashing away at the golf ball, falling way behind and finding ways to come back.
“I hit a 3-iron into the breeze at 16, and I remember it like it was yesterday,” Palmer was saying. It was 1962. He was 5 over par for the day. He was letting the tournament get away. As he walked up to the 16th green, he heard Jimmy Demaret up in the CBS tower.
“You know,” Demaret was saying (and Palmer heard every word clearly). “I know Arnie pretty well. He’s good at these shots. But he has no chance.”
Palmer thought “I’ll show this son of a gun.”
He chipped in. He birdied the next hole. He won that Masters in a playoff.
That’s Arnold Palmer, swashbuckling away, making a wild eagle on 13 to win in ’58, making birdies on the last two holes in ’60, running away from everybody in ’64.
“When you think about Arnold Palmer,” Tom Watson says, “That’s what you think about. You think about him at the Masters, coming from behind, that’s how people will always remember him.”
Palmer even lost spectacularly. In ’61, he was on the 18th, needing only par to win. He hit a beautiful drive. He stood in the middle of the fairway. And that’s when he saw an old friend calling him over to the ropes. Palmer, being Palmer, went to shake the man’s hand.
“You won it, boy!” the old friend said.
“And,” Palmer says now, more than 40 years later, “my mind left my body. Just went away. And I proceeded to, short story, make 6 on the last hole and lose the Masters.”
Palmer hit such highs here. He fell low, too. He heard the loudest roars. He heard the saddest groans. He won four Masters. He lost others. He made this golf tournament an event. He made golf an event. They called him the King.
Today, it ends. Time catches everybody. Even kings.
“Hopefully tomorrow, I will play a little better,” Palmer said after his round Friday. He shot an 89. It was the worst score of the day. He made only seven pars, the rest were bogeys or double bogeys or worse.
And it was a little bit sad watching Palmer hit the ball as hard as he could only to watch it land 50 yards short of the green. A little bit sad. But only a little bit. Because mostly there were cheers from people he knows on a first-name basis. Mostly there were glimpses of yesterday.
Today will be like that, too, a day filled with memories and standing ovations and a few tears. And who knows? Maybe Palmer has one more lightning bolt left. One more thrilling shot. You never know. A few years ago, here at Augusta, Palmer played a little practice-round skins game with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Woods was just 19 years old, but so breathtakingly talented that Nicklaus, that very day, predicted Tiger would win 10 Masters. That was also the year Nicklaus found his youth, shot 67 on Thursday at the Masters, gave everybody a jolt.
But what happened in the skins game? Well, they played and played, nobody could win a hole, until the 18th. And while Nicklaus floundered and Woods missed his putt, Arnold Palmer made birdie. He took all the money. He took it laughing.