A look at Arnold Palmer’s farewell rounds at the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open:
Something didn’t feel right. Six holes on a Saturday morning in front of a barely arriving crowd was no way for Arnold Palmer to close out his illustrious career at Augusta National.
Palmer wanted to go out his way, and two years after his originally scheduled farewell to the Masters, he did.
The King’s closing-round 84 came on a sun-splashed Friday afternoon in 2004 and wrapped up an even 50 years of competition at the major he propelled straight into American culture.
He won the first of his four green jackets in 1958 — a week during which a phenomenon known as “Arnie’s Army” began.
That win gave him a lifetime ticket to Augusta. The Masters had long embraced a tradition of letting past champions enter the tournament for as long as they liked.
But as that list of champions grew longer, and older, and, frankly, less illustrious, the club tried to set some boundaries.
Palmer was among the first to be given the hint, and in 2002, he was set to play his last round — at age 72.
Rain delayed play early that week, and what could’ve been Palmer’s last day in a competitive round on the grounds finished under gray, misty skies near the crack of dawn — with his first shot struck from the 13th fairway.
Didn’t feel right, and after meeting with then-chairman Hootie Johnson, Palmer was given the chance to make it an even 50 years. He closed out his playing days in 2004, though he would go on to hit the ceremonial first tee shot for years after that.
“If you just use your imagination, you’ll understand the emotion,” Palmer said after his closing round.
Among those on hand to watch him were Col. Joe Curtis, who came to Augusta for 49 years, the last few in an electric wheelchair, specifically to watch one man.
“He has a way of making everybody think he’s looking at them,” Curtis said that day. “That’s called charisma.”
On his final trip over the ancient stone bridge that crosses the famous Swilcan Burn at St. Andrews, Palmer stopped and posed for pictures.
He knew the significance of the moment and wanted to savor it.
Many of his colleagues did, too.
Nick Faldo, Brad Faxon, Steve Elkington and David Duval sat on the stone steps of the clubhouse and watched Palmer finish. Duval had a camera and took pictures. They had prime seats as Palmer walked up the 18th fairway for the last time at the British Open in 1995, 35 years after he first played golf’s oldest major.
Palmer took his time finishing, giving the thousands on hand a glimpse of a 65-year-old legend playing his last shot on the last hole of his 23rd and final British Open.
Ian Baker-Finch and Peter Baker, who were in Palmer’s group, finished first so Palmer could be the last to putt out. He hunched over in his usual stance and gently tapped the ball into the hole.
Palmer smiled, shook hands with Mark McCormack of International Management Group, Michael Bonallack of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, waved to the crowd once more and walked away for good.
“It’s over,” Palmer said.
He signed for a 75, which was considerably better than his first-round 83, but not good enough to make the cut.
“As I was coming up 18, I kept thinking about 1960 and what it led to,” Palmer said later, his voice cracking with emotion. “A lot of great years and a lot of happy times.”
Before Palmer traveled to the Old Course in 1960, the British Open had fallen off the radar of American golf. The year before, at Muirfield, no American pros were in the field. It was too far away and not nearly as profitable as stateside events.
Nonetheless, having won the Masters and the U.S. Open, Palmer deemed it important to go to St. Andrews and win the British Open. He created talk of a professional “Grand Slam” for the first time and came oh-so-close to a third straight major. He lost by one to Kel Nagle and decided to come back for the challenge.
He won the Claret Jug in 1961 at Royal Birkdale and in 1962 at Royal Troon, bringing the Open back to international prominence and making his farewell a moment to savor.
He got there with 30 seconds to spare.
Arnold Palmer’s last U.S. Open came at what was essentially his home course — Oakmont Country Club, only about 40 miles from his home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
He had so much trouble working his way through the throng of well-wishers, Palmer barely made it to the first tee on time. He had only his putter with him — his caddie was also having trouble getting to the tee box.
Thankfully, Palmer’s playing partners that day — Rocco Mediate and John Mahaffey — milked their pre-shot routines to the max, and all was fine for Palmer, who hit his first shot at 2:03 p.m. for what was, officially, a 2 p.m. tee time.
It was all that passed for drama over the two days.
Palmer shot 77-81 over his final two rounds at Oakmont, often thought as one of the most difficult U.S. Open tracks (which is saying something).
When it was over, the 64-year-old was awash in tears.
As he sat down for the post-round interviews, he said: “I can’t get it started,” then buried his head in a towel and tried to regain his composure.