Palmer's Opening Drive

Wednesday July 29th, 2009
"Well, I hit it, didn't I?" joked Palmer after the shot.
Fred Vuich/SI

Augusta, Ga., April 5 — Fifty-two years after striking his first tee shot at the Masters, Arnold Palmer, dressed in a light-blue V-neck sweater, gray slacks and black-and-white saddle shoes, stepped onto Augusta National's first tee Thursday morning. He took one waggle of his titanium-headed driver and, with thousands of spectators, at least eight video cameras and dozens of photographers packed around him, fulfilled his duty in his first year as honorary starter by sending a low, bending draw down the fairway and into Masters history. (Go to Photo Gallery)

"Well, I hit it, didn't I?" joked Palmer, as applause filled the air and several fans went scrambling for his ball.

It wasn't certain that Palmer would hit the drive until he announced Tuesday that he had finally come to terms with the reality that he could no longer compete here. The anticipation for this moment had been building since then, but it spiked early this morning when thousands of ticket-holders began lining up outside the club's gates under darkness, a full two hours before they would be allowed in at 7:30.

Among the early arrivers were three generations of the Holley family — Wayne (the grandfather), Brad (the father) and 16-year-old Brad Jr. (the son), all visiting from Virginia, all hoping for a glimpse of Palmer's swing. Wayne had seen Palmer play decades ago in the now-defunct Monterey Classic, and Brad and Brad Jr. had met Palmer at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst, where Palmer signed a flag for Brad Jr. and gave him and his friends night-time putting lessons on the Pinehurst putting green.

"That was a special day," Brad said. "So we wanted to be here for this special moment today." Undoubtedly, he spoke for so many others around him.

At 7:27, a teenager in a blue blazer and khakis stepped up on a chair positioned to the left of the first tee marker and slid a placard with Palmer's name into the pairing podium, drawing a hum from the crowd, by now five or six rows deep. Three minutes later, the swarm of fans from outside poured in, each jockeying for sightlines of the tee.

When Palmer emerged from the clubhouse moments later, applause and cheering broke out as he made his way like a prizefighter to the tee box, high-fiving fans along the way. When he arrived on the tee, he grinned broadly and looked completely at ease, though he'd admit later that the thought of topping his drive was in the back of his mind. After a few snap shots with three men in green jackets and a smile from Jim Nantz, Palmer was set.

"Pretty good — I can still bend anyway," he said as he put his tee in the ground, drawing laughs from the gallery. "Thought I might have someone tee it up for me." More laughs.

"Chairman, I might keep this going," Palmer said.

He wasted no time. Addressing the ball, he took one peak down the fairway, waggled his driver once and — thwack! — the ball was gone.

"If I hit the shot and it went left, it was OK," Palmer said afterward. "If it went right, I was in trouble."

It went left, but it was more than OK. Ask anyone who was there.

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