Rain, memories and no azaleas

At the Masters, Art Spander, Sports Columnist, San Francisco Examiner / 

Somewhere in the misty afternoon one could discern the past at Augusta National. The Masters certainly is layered upon history as much as the dark soil of east Georgia, and on a Wednesday when the traditional par-three tournament was ended early because of the weather, thoughts turned to earlier times.

To Byron Nelson, “Lord Byron,” winning the Masters in 1937, 80 years ago. To hometowner Larry Mize holing a chip shot off the 11th green to stun star-crossed Greg Norman in a playoff in 1987, 30 years ago. To a 21-year named Tiger Woods changing all we knew about golf by winning in record fashion in 1997,20 years ago. Nostalgia is as thick as the Georgia pines down here. In the luxurious, enormous, new media facility there are dozens of photos from earlier Masters, photos of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, of Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus and, of course, photos Arnold Palmer.

Arnie, among all his triumphs, was most identified with the Masters, which he won four times. This was where “Arnie’s Army,” was born, a phrase created by a writer noticing uniformed soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon in Palmer’s boisterous gallery. This was where Arnie became a TV star, offering style and success that would resonate forever.

Palmer died last fall at 87. He lives in the pictures and plaques at Augusta National, a young man, handsome and bold, and in the words of Masters Chairman Billy Payne who was in charge of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He had played football at South Carolina. And yet he was particularly impressed by Palmer.

“I first met Arnolds Palmer when I was invited here before I was a member—also before I played golf,” said Payne, who meant played golf seriously. “But I played with Arnold and with his dear friend, Russ Meyer, and with (former chairman) Jack Stevens. “Of course I as in total awe, and he was so nice and so accepting of my embarrassing play . . . Through the years I was fortunate to get close to Arnie, as a consequence of his return as a member and as a former champion. And I’m not sure I ever met a man who was more giving than Arnold. He had a profound influence on my life.”

Payne is protective of the club and the game, as expected. The Masters has been involved in controversy over the decades—before Payne was elevated to the top position—no minority members, no women members. Now the club has both. There’s always some issue out there, however on Wednesday, Payne was asked a rather angular question whether President Donald Trump’s association with golf made Payne “uncomfortable to be associated with the game you love and represent.”

The answer hardly was a surprise. You think Billy Payne is going to get into politics when his concern is battling Mother Nature this weekend? “I am not fully aware of anything that our President may have said controversial about the game of golf,” was Payne’s response. “We have had several presidents, including one who was a member here (Dwight Eisenhower), who have been significant advocates and players of golf. And I think someone who loves the game would espouse and be proud of that association.”

Yes, the Masters exists in its own sphere, where the major worry is not, say, immigration or healthcare, but why there will be so few azaleas in bloom during this year’s tournament. Warm weather in early March followed by a hard freeze ruined the flowers.

“So this year,” said Payne with a laugh, “we have decided that our color of choice is green, Augusta green, and I hope you agree it is both abundant and beautiful.”

On this damp afternoon, there wasn’t much else we could do. Except recall the past. ASP