Arnold Palmer Ruled the Masters with Grace and Guts

December 17, 2016

Beginning Dec. 14, is rolling out a story per day honoring the legendary Arnold Palmer, who died on Sept. 25. These pieces appeared in a special tribute issue of GOLF, which celebrated the life of one of the sport’s greats. Welcome to the 12 Days of Arnie. For more on The King, click here.

On the eve of the 1958 Masters, Arnold Palmer sat in the Augusta locker room after an unimpressive practice round with Ben Hogan. Arnie overheard the Hawk gripe, “How the hell did Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?”

“That question burned me up,” Palmer wrote in his memoir, “and set my mind on showing why the hell I’d been invited to the Masters.” A fired-up Palmer showed Hogan—and the rest of the field. The 28-year-old won his first major by a stroke (helped by a rules controversy on the 12th hole that was decided in his favor). The blue-collar son of a club pro had proved that he more than belonged. At Augusta, the Era of Arnie had begun.

Between 1958 and “64, Palmer won four green jackets (twice as many as Hogan had won, Arnie would have been quick to note). With plenty of birdies and eagles for the taking on the back nine, Augusta suited Arnie’s aggressive style. He usually played better when he was charging, and not surprisingly, three of his four Masters titles demanded Sunday heroics—dazzling displays of grit and vision.

For the millions who watched the Masters on TV in the late “50s and early “60s, the sight of Palmer striding down the fairway came to define the event: his brawny grace, a cigarette dangling from his lips; his cocksure smile; his focused determination. He made the Masters “appointment television.” And for the lunch-pail set—steel workers, truckers, beat cops— it was like one of their own had achieved immortality. There he was at Augusta, golf’s Olympus.

MORE: Buy Sports Illustrated’s Arnold Palmer Commemorative

But not all gods are equal. Along came Jack Nicklaus, who was longer, stronger. Palmer’s six-stroke victory in 1964 was his most dominant major win—and, at age 34, his last.

Palmer played his final Masters in 2004. He always reflected with awe and humility on those dreamy April days: “You simply felt privileged to have been invited to play there.”

And we felt just as privileged to watch.