Thursday, April 11, 2002

Old champions phased out at Augusta

The Associated Press

        AUGUSTA, Ga. — Arnold Palmer's slashing swing, full of bravado, sent the ball careening toward an all-too-familiar spot — a bunker at Augusta National. The gallery groaned.

        The King nearly whiffed on his next shot, failing to extract the ball from the sand. Palmer shook his head. The crowd moaned again.

        “He sure looks old,” a patron said, with a heavy dose of sympathy. “He looks like Johnny U. limping around his last season.”

        If the powers-that-be have their way, this sort of pitiable scene won't be repeated in future Masters. Already, three former champions have been phased out, and it's certain that more — even a revered figure such as Palmer — will soon be relegated to ceremonial roles.

        “I'm not worried about that too much,” Palmer insisted. “I'm going to play this week and just hope to scrape something together.”

        Until now, the Masters was the one event that guaranteed lifetime playing privileges for its past champions.

        But the fudging began a few months ago, when Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson sent letters to Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper “recommending” they give up their spots in the field.

        From a competitive standpoint, the decision was a no-brainer.

        The 79-year-old Ford, who won in 1957, had gone 30 years without making the cut, and last year was a downright farce. He scored a 2 — hitting two shots on the first hole, then heading to the parking lot without even bothering to retrieve his ball.

        Brewer and Casper, both 70, haven't fared much better.

        Brewer, the 1967 champion, had not played on the weekend since 1983. Casper, who won his green jacket in 1970, was sent home on Friday 13 times in a row.

        “We made those decisions based on what we thought was in the best interests of the tournament,” Johnson said Wednesday.

        The hefty Casper, who struggled just to walk 18 holes, had no qualms about stepping aside.

        “Actually, I'm glad they made the decision for me,” he said. “The people were the only thing that kept me playing. ... I would say to them, "I'm getting too old for this.' And they would say, "No, we want to see you.”'

        On the other hand, Ford was miffed that Johnson made his request in an impersonal letter. “I would have rather he call me on the phone and ask me not to play.”

        Brewer was even more outraged about getting a pink slip. He refused to come to Augusta at all, even boycotting the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night.

        “I tried to talk him out of it,” Casper said, “but he told me he was devastated by the way they handled it.”

        Indeed, tradition dies hard in Augusta. The past champions don't want to embarrass the game, but they don't want to give up their most cherished privilege.

        “I think that's the player's decision,” said 62-year-old Jack Nicklaus, sitting out this year because of a bad back. “He's earned that right.”

        In a de facto admission that the letter-writing campaign wasn't the best way to go, Johnson said a formal policy on past champions will be in place by the 2003 Masters.

        Does that mean there could actually come a day when Augusta National gently nudges someone such as Nicklaus (six green jackets) or Palmer (four) out to pasture?

        “There will be no misunderstanding,” Johnson said. “There was ambiguity there, and we intend to make it clear. We don't know what that will be right now, but we will do something about it.”

        It might involve age. The British Open allows past champions to compete until they're 65, but a similar policy in Augusta would eliminate someone such as Gary Player.

        The 66-year-old South African is still in excellent physical condition and shot a respectable 5-over par for two rounds last year, better than 21 others.

        “I'm not stopping yet,” said Player, finishing up a practice round with youngsters Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Sergio Garcia. “I can still get around the course. I'm certain I will know when it's time.”

        Player suggested a compromise: a 36-hole senior tournament within the regular tournament. But Johnson treated the idea with disdain, and Nicklaus brushed it off as well.

        “You've got the greatest golf tournament in the world,” he said. “Why do you want to clutter it up with a bunch of old guys?”

        Maybe the new policy will encompass some combination of age and years without making the cut. Palmer would certainly be in the danger zone under that scenario, along with 64-year-old Charles Coody (eight straight years without playing on the weekend).

        Tommy Aaron, 65, is another aging champion. Two years ago, he scored a coup for the AARP set by becoming the oldest player to make the cut. Last year, though, he shot 81 and 82.

        Palmer, 72, has hearing aids in both ears, sends shots flying all over the course and bends over slowly to retrieve the ball when he finally gets it in the cup.

        Even so, he's still an endearing figure at Augusta. He lingered close to the ropes during a practice round, stopping often to chat, pose for pictures or, as he did Tuesday, sign a ball after slicing his tee shot into the gallery.

        Thousands of fans followed his every move, while hardly anyone appeared to notice that David Duval was in the same group.

        “One more charge, Arnie!” a man yelled optimistically. Palmer smiled and gave a thumbs-up.

        But he knows better than anyone that his days of competitive golf have long since passed. Palmer is approaching the 40th anniversary of the last Masters victory, which came in 1964 — just a few months after President Kennedy was assassinated.

        “My game is short and crooked,” Palmer said. “Maybe I can make a few pars come Thursday and Friday.”

        He didn't even mention the weekend, having last made the Masters cut in 1983.

        Palmer also wouldn't discuss the treatment of those who aren't here, perhaps aware of the perception that he was given a free pass because of his enormous popularity.

        Certainly, Palmer doesn't want to be forced out with a letter.

        “I hope,” he said, “that I will know when it's time.”

        More Masters and local golf coverage at

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