Once, some years ago, when Arnie was the man and Tiger Woods was not yet born, the King was routinely paired with the elite golfers of his day, Billy Casper and Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. These days, Arnold Palmer is Augusta's most celebrated tour guide. At the Masters this year, in his 43rd consecutive appearance in the event, Palmer played the first round with Warren Bladon, the reigning British Amateur champion, a 30-year-old former bartender who took a decade to decide to get married and just as long to decide to turn pro, which he did the day after last week's tournament ended. On Thursday, in the opener, Bladon took 79 strokes while Palmer, recovering from cancer surgery and 67 years old, needed 10 more. Palmer's score was his worst ever at Augusta and the worst of the day. It earned him the right to play in Friday morning's first game, in which he was paired with Mr. Kenneth J. Green of West Palm Beach, Fla., who had shot the second-highest score on Thursday, 87. Within the manicured confines of Augusta National, Palmer is considered the game's most revered living figure. As for Ken Green—who has often referred to Augusta's greens as "a joke," and who has bragged about sneaking friends into the tournament—he's thought to be just the opposite. It was an interesting pairing.
Palmer, with his silver hair and bronzed neck, has never looked more handsome. Friday morning at 20 past eight, in the glistening sunshine, he stood on the 1st tee wearing white shoes, a white glove, a white visor; pleated, made-to-measure, coffee-colored trousers; a cashmere V-neck sweater of a hue (a cross between tangerine and coral) that only a true star could pull off; and a white polo shirt made of the finest cotton, the top two buttons ignored. He wore no ads.
Green's 38 years have not been as kind. His two marriages have ended in divorce, and the millions he earned in his brief period of excellence have evaporated. He takes medication to combat depression. Since his heyday eight years ago, his face has become rounder and his glasses have become thicker, his hair has become thinner, and his public pronouncements (by golf's tame standards) have become more outrageous. He gained entry into the Masters by virtue of his tie for seventh in last year's U.S. Open. On Friday morning, Green was wearing sneakers with spikes, a blue sweatshirt and a hat bearing two logos. When Palmer extended a hand—"Nice to see you," he said at their first meeting ever—Green, for maybe the only time in his life, had nothing to say. He nodded, he stammered. For a brief moment he stood in awe.
Over the course of the round, a friendship, of a sort, developed. That's golf, and that's Palmer, too. Palmer asked Green whether he had his Tour card, and Green acknowledged that he no longer did. Palmer told Green that he should write to tournament sponsors and ask for exemptions. He was offering counsel, and Green was accepting it. They played with little fuss but full effort, and when Palmer duffed shots, Green did the most polite thing he could do. He said nothing. The rest of the time, he kept things light. When Palmer pulled out the flagstick himself on the 7th green, with his looper raking sand, Green said to the King, "Caddie, give me a line here." Palmer laughed.
Probably a thousand spectators—Arnie's Army (ret.)—followed the fast-moving twosome through the back nine. When Palmer stubbed a chip or hit a line drive into a water hazard or took two swipes from a bunker, the gallery murmured sounds not of sympathy, but of understanding. Palmer was playing shots like an ordinary golfer, and he and his fans were bonding as never before.
The day before, when Palmer played with Bladon, the atmosphere had been completely different. The course was so firm and fast it was like playing down a long corridor in a modern high school. At one point, Palmer added a stroke to his card for hitting a ball while it was moving, and later a gallery member raised the question of whether Palmer had grounded his club, for if he hadn't there would be no penalty. "Whether I shoot 84 or 85, it doesn't really matter," Palmer said resignedly while walking up the 17th fairway.
Bladon, who shot seven over but was even par in the second round to miss the cut by two, was nervous about playing with Palmer, and his respect for Arnie was obvious. When they stood on a tee talking, waiting for a fairway to clear, Bladon removed his space-age, wraparound sunglasses so that the two men could look one another in the eye. "It's not nice to say this, but playing with Arnold, I felt like I was playing with anyone," Bladon said. Bladon must be a genius. He captured Palmer's whole legacy in a sentence. Palmer is the ultimate every-man, at ease downing a pint with Tip Anderson, his St. Andrews caddie, in a pub on High Street, or having a highball with President Bush aboard Air Force One.
One place Palmer has never had a libation, though, is on the Augusta National course during the Masters. Never even heard of it happening, until this year. It wasn't Bladon. Bladon gave up drinking when he started pouring beers for a living and saw the colossal amount of time being wasted on the other side of the bar. It was Green who showed Palmer new tricks.
As Green came off the 15th tee, a friend gave him a beer. Green made a toast to Palmer, who was striding well ahead, then downed his late-morning refreshment. When he caught up with Palmer he said, "I always wanted to have a beer with you, and I figured this would be my only chance."
To which Palmer replied, "Why didn't you bring one for me?"