AUGUSTA, Ga., April 3 – Arnold Palmer announced in an emotional press conference on Tuesday afternoon that he will revive a Masters tradition by hitting the ceremonial first drive Thursday.
He takes over the honor held most recently by the late Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, who was the last player to hit the ceremonial first shot, by himself, in 2002. No one has stepped up to fill the position over the past four years.
"I think all of you know what Augusta means to me," said Palmer before tears began to flood his eyes, forcing him to stop. The Masters chairman, Billy Payne, sitting beside Palmer to moderate the press conference, quickly stepped in: "Questions, please," he said with a smile.
Palmer reminisced about the first time he played Augusta in 1955, and he challenged the media to name the player who was his partner that day. (No one answered; it was Sarazen.) He was asked if he might be tempted to keep playing should that first drive find the middle. He gave an impish grin as if he were considering it, then said:
"I'm not too smart, but I'm not stupid. I think I'll just let it go wherever it goes." Palmer had been considering acting as ceremonial starter for a few years, he said, but he "didn't want to rush it."
Payne, who is overseeing his first Masters, called the announcement "wonderful news for the Masters and his legions of fans."
True to his hard-charging character, Palmer reacted angrily when he was pressed about Gary Player, who will tie his record of 50 Masters starts this year. Player is so fit, a reporter said, he could go another 30 years.
"Who gives a s-t! If you can't win it doesn't matter," he said to laughter. He then spelled the four-letter word he'd used, in case anybody missed it the first time, as the chairman, sitting to his right, wore a pained expression.