It's early Thursday morning and honorary starter Arnold Palmer has just stepped onto the tee of the the first hole of Augusta National Golf Club. The club face strikes the ball with the familiar ping of a metal driver,the ball sails up and out, then disappears from sight. Not that the ball has gone that far down the perfectly maintained turf of Augusta, it's simply been absorbed by the pale gray fog that hangs low and thick under the Georgia Pines.
Photo Orlando Sentinel
Mr. Palmer briefly admires his handy work and then turns his attention to the applause of the gathered crowd.
“Did you see that shot?,” Palmer asks. “I hit the ball out of sight.
“Fifty years ago, I probably hit the ball further, but I can say I hit it so far (today) I couldn't even see it.”
Again the cheers let you know, Arnie's Army is out in force this morning, hours before Tiger Woods will step to the same tee on the first fairway of Augusta National.
In the damp chill of a Georgia spring morning, patrons did their part of sweeping the grounds of dew with their shoes and in return Arnold Palmer paid them handsomely. Shaking hands, signing autographs, talking to a young man with a Virginia Tech ball cap and then signing it, all the while doing so with a smile so big and bright that it seemed as if the sun was hung high in the Georgia sky.
Look back at the past 50 years of golf and what you'll see is Arnold Palmer signing autographs, pulling a ball out of his pocket to give a five year old on the edge of the car path. Posing for photographs with kids, fellow golfers and countless fans. How many autographs, how many photos, how many fans, how many lives has he enhanced? How many moments of shared joy in the game of golf? Well a lifetime's worth without a doubt.
Photo by The Author
On the other side of the Augusta National Club House, Tiger Woods and his posse skirt past a throng of fans held behind the ropes that lead to the practice range. By 9:30 the fog has left the grounds and with it Palmer's smile and warmth. Replaced by Tiger's stoic game face and rapid fire expletive attacks on photographers and fans alike.
And I am left to consider, somewhere in golf's future when Tiger's game has left him as well, how many fans will skip a cup of coffee, soak their shoes in the Augusta dew to watch a one time great named Eldrick Woods tee it up for just one swing?
Photo - Sports Illustrated
I don't know if Tiger is just an angry golfer, who can't play the game unless he's peeved at the entire world, and once off the course becomes the nicest guy you'd ever meet, but I doubt it.
Much the same way I doubt the always polite Masters spectators will stand 20 deep around the first tee on Thursday morning years from now, brave the chill in the air and watch an old man who still calls himself Tiger curse with a string of "F"-Bombs, at shot that only dribbles down the fairway 100 yards.
Tiger you could learn a few things from an old man.
You can follow Tiger and the rest of the 2008 Master's Field via several columnists including:
Tom Sorenson of the Charlotte Observer
Ken Burger of the Charleston Post and Courier
Roughing It By Jeremy Fowler
Masters By Will Durst