Dear 2017 Invitees:
Now that you have arrived at Augusta National Golf Club at the request of its board of governors, we thought it was necessary this year to follow up with a few instructions. But first, a brief history lesson. Though you have undoubtedly heard Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts described as Augusta's founding fathers, please understand something important about the club.
This is the House That Palmer Built as surely as the old Yankee Stadium was the House That Ruth Built.
Arnold Daniel Palmer, that is. As much as Babe Ruth made or saved baseball, Palmer made or saved golf. We all thought he would live forever, and it is still hard to believe that he won't show up on the first tee Thursday morning with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, or that he won't suddenly appear under a clubhouse umbrella to enjoy lunch and acknowledge his admirers' awestruck gaze.
He was 87 when he died in September as a King who really belonged to the serfs. And what we wanted to convey to you this week, more than any other, is that you should honor the bridge he built between a blue-blood sport and the blue-collar fans who embraced him as their own American original.
Only we can't open that dialogue without revisiting the events of a few weeks ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Arnie's family and friends were so thankful that the likes of Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jason Day played Bay Hill. They could see how badly Rory wanted to win for Arnie, and how much McIlroy wanted to "celebrate his amazing life" -- his tweeted words tethered to the image of a letter Palmer sent Rory following his 2011 U.S. Open victory. Arnie told the kid, "Don't change." We're glad Rory didn't.
We're also glad young Fowler didn't change, either. He revealed his old and noble soul at Pinehurst in 2014 when he dressed the part of Payne Stewart, who had won the 1999 U.S. Open there four months before he would die in a plane crash. Fowler did it again when he cut his hair at Palmer's request (the next time Rickie saw Arnie at Seminole, he went running down the fairway toward Palmer's cart to show off his new clean-cut look), and again when he turned his Puma high-tops into last month's walking memorial to the King.
But you should know that Fowler's presence at Bay Hill said much more than his flamboyant footwear did. After the Arnold Palmer Invitational was complete, someone asked Fowler when he was leaving for Austin, Texas, and the World Golf Championships-Match Play event that -- given the jam-packed tour schedule -- helped persuade Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson to skip Bay Hill. "I'm not going to Austin," Rickie answered. "There are always going to be other WGCs. There's only going to be one of these."
Yes, there was only going to be one Arnold Palmer Invitational five months after the one and only died. Boo Weekley, your colorful colleague and homespun philosopher, spoke for the masses when he paused between a cold beverage or three at Bay Hill and asked out loud, "How can you not come and play Arnold Palmer's tournament this year?!"
We asked some longtime FOAs (Friends of Arnie's) at Bay Hill what they thought of the high-profile players among you who decided to get in their Masters tuneups elsewhere, and the FOAs stressed they wanted to focus on the stars who did show up rather than on the stars who did not. They described their feelings as trending closer to disappointment than anger, though anger was only a short par-4 removed from their fractured hearts.
They acknowledged that Mickelson did attend Palmer's memorial service in the fall, that Spieth has been a model representative of the game, and that the tour's decision to slot a WGC right in behind Bay Hill put the players in a pre-Masters bind. (You should know Palmer was furious with former commissioner Tim Finchem for moving the event to late March.)
"But Phil is this generation's Arnie," said one FOA. "Couldn't he have skipped the WGC just this one time under the circumstances?"
"Jordan Spieth," said another FOA, "shared Arnold's locker at Augusta National. ... I do not care about his schedule. Arnie died in September. Work it out."
You know that everyone had their reasons/excuses for not playing Bay Hill, though it would be hard to imagine the absentees explaining their decision to their grandfathers. Let me get this straight, young man. You didn't go honor the most important golfer ever because you needed to rest up for the WG-what?
No, this wasn't the year to afford the Arnold Palmer Invitational no more consideration than, say, your average, everyday Valspar Championship. Most of you have said for years that you owe everything to Palmer, that you realized he was the one who sold sponsors and TV executives on the idea it made sense to throw truckloads of money at golf and golfers. And then when you had a chance to show your appreciation by sacrificing something in the lead-up to Augusta -- just this one time -- well, some of you chipped short of the green.
But here's the good news. If there are no mulligans in competitive golf, you're going to get one here. This is the tournament, and the week, to honor Arnold Palmer by acting like Arnold Palmer. And just to show that we're not picking on Mickelson and Spieth, it's worth pointing out that Phil has engaged the fans as much as any golfer since Palmer, and that Spieth comes out of a terrific family and almost always does the right thing -- as he did Sunday, when he spent quality time with the kids in the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, Arnie style.
So this message is for everyone in the Masters field, whether or not you played Bay Hill. Get your heads out of your yardage books, and remove those invisible-yet-ultra-conspicuous Do Not Disturb signs dangling from your necks as you march from the practice green to the first tee. Make as much eye contact as possible with the men, women and children on the other side of the ropes. Smile at them. Nod at them. Give them a thumbs-up. And then when your round is over, be sure to spend 20 extra minutes signing autographs than you normally would. Sign as many as Arnie would sign, and you damn well better be certain your signature is legible, too.
Palmer had a magical gift for leaving a paying customer feeling as if he or she was the only person out there. If an old-timer in the crowd shouted to him about the time they played a pro-am together at the 1967 Thunderbird Classic in Jersey, Arnie would act like he remembered reading the poor guy's putts for double-bogey, just to make the old-timer's day.
From here through Sunday afternoon, copy that style. Knock down those ropes between you and them. Connect with the people. Invite them into your charmed world, and make them part of the best experience in golf.
And while you're at it, leave your hat in your locker, apply a heavy dose of sunscreen, and let the fans see your face, your emotions, your reactions to the birdies and the shots that went awry. You won't be able to contort your face into a thousand classic expressions like the King could. Try anyway.
Hitch up your pants while you're at it, and if you've been spending enough time in the gym, don't be afraid to pull an Arnie and wear something tight enough to show off those blacksmith arms. A little showmanship never hurt anyone. It sure didn't hurt Palmer, who always looked like a movie star sliding into those four green jackets.
Palmer didn't act like a movie star, though, didn't big-time anyone. So be approachable to the people this week, and try to commit some of their names to memory even if you've just had an unfortunate encounter with Rae's Creek. This includes the waitstaff, locker room attendants, you name it. Arnold Palmer was one of them, you know, the laboring son of a greenskeeper who was locked out of country club America. He never forgot his working man's roots, which is why he kept a relatively modest home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, until his dying days.
We all understand the Masters is serious business; in fact, nobody understood that better than Palmer, who played 50 of them in a row. Fifty. Arnie once stared down cancer, and some Augusta overlords who wanted to disinvite the aging champs, to keep his streak going, and the fans never cared how far north of par he'd finish in missing the cut. They adored him because he gave them something spectators don't always get from the rich and famous -- respect, recognition, some common human decency.
Remember that this week. As serious as the Masters is, Palmer never took himself so seriously that he needed to block out the noise and treat the average fan as an unnecessary evil. This is why the 2017 Masters is your time, and your tournament, to honor Arnie's approach.
We won't have Palmer on the grounds for the first time in forever, but you should know that doesn't mean we can't have dozens like him in the field. Sometimes all it takes is a well-placed wink and a wave, and a commitment to avoid head-down drive-bys past the patrons on the way to the range. In the end, if you really want to honor Palmer in the House That Palmer Built, there's one clear way to do it.
Just make this the friendliest Masters of all time. It really shouldn't be that hard.
Arnie's intact army