1958 Masters: Arnie’s Army is born

March 18, 2009

A transformative moment often requires a specific combination of conditions and a single event that acts as a catalyst. Think of Europe in 1914, a mix of ethnic tensions, political rivalries and expansionist conflict. Then, bam, the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand leads to a world war.

In the America of 1958, the war-hero president, Dwight Eisenhower, loved golf and conducted business on the course. Economic expansion led to an emerging middle class, suburban migration and an increase in leisure time. Into that mix of conditions came a bolt of lightning that made golf the coolest sport on the planet: Arnold Palmer won the 1958 Masters, and the game was changed forever.

Of course, it wasn’t only Palmer’s one-shot (four-under 284) victory that did the trick, but also the way the tournament unfolded and the winner’s personality.

It was the first year that soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon were offered free admission and were recruited to run the scoreboards at Augusta National. Over the first three rounds, Palmer, a charismatic 28-year-old U.S. Coast Guard veteran, played his way into a tie for first with Sam Snead. Palmer won over the troops and most of the rest of the crowd. By the time he teed off with Ken Venturi on Sunday morning, Arnie’s Army was officially born, and its enthusiasm helped carry Palmer to victory.

That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing for Palmer. When he reached the 12th hole, the 155-yard par 3 that makes up the middle leg of what Herbert Warren Wind named Amen Corner in the days after the ’58 Masters, Palmer was one shot ahead Venturi for the overall lead. There had been a lot of rain in the previous days, and Palmer’s shot carried the green and plugged in the rough. Citing a local rule, Palmer argued that he was entitled to a free drop. Venturi and the rules official assigned to their pairing disagreed, saying Palmer had to play it as it lay.

Furious, Palmer insisted that he would play the first ball as instructed and then play a second ball from a drop and let the rules committee sort it out later. He made a five with the first ball and a three with the second. When the two men teed off on the par-5 13th, they knew someone had a one-shot lead, but they didn’t know who.

On 13, Palmer hit two beautiful shots and holed an 18-footer for eagle, while Venturi made birdie. After finishing the hole, the players received unofficial word that Palmer would win the argument and be granted a three on the 12th. Bobby Jones himself gave them the official ruling on the 15th hole. Clearly flustered, Venturi bogeyed 14, 15 and 16. Palmer had two bogeys coming in as well, but they didn’t matter. At that point Venturi was too far back, and the only other players with a chance to catch Palmer were faltering down the stretch.

It’s appropriate that Palmer’s breakthrough victory came from such a brazen act of will. It was a prime example of his hard-driving, confident personality. He would take any risk, try any shot, and never lose faith in his own beliefs and abilities. That was what led him to challenge the rules official and to hit the shots that others couldn’t or wouldn’t. This self confidence and bold nature drove him to success on and off the course and drew others to him.

In 1958, that magnetism was on display for a national TV audience, as the Masters was televised for just the third time in its history. Viewers were invited into the pristine grounds of Augusta National for the final three holes, and what they found there was a thin-waisted, wide-shouldered star with a go-for-broke style. He broke down all the pre-conceived notions of what a golfer could be, and he made the sport into an athletic adventure played over a stunning natural landscape.

People were sold on him and the game. Frank Chirkinian, who produced the Masters for CBS for nearly 40 years, has said that he knew golf would succeed as a televised sport the moment Palmer appeared on screen, coming over a rise, silhouetted by the light, with his hair Brylcreemed into a pompadour and his thick forearms hitching his pants like some long-forgotten cowboy.

Succeed it did. Palmer would go on to win another three Masters and seven majors altogether, along the way setting a new standard for golfers — and all athletes — as a crossover media star who drew thousands of new fans and recreational players to the game. It hasn’t been the same since.