Thursday, April 10, 2003

Arnie and Jack can't say goodbye
to Augusta

By Eddie Pells
The Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Back at the Masters, a slimmed-down Jack Nicklaus walked off the green smiling after knocking an approach shot to 6 feet. A few minutes later, Arnold Palmer trudged off the course. A gray, muddy practice round left him wondering if he really should have called it quits here, the way he said he would after last year's tournament.

They are separated by 10 years and more than 10 strokes, but Jack, Arnie and the Masters go together like springtime and azaleas. The pre-eminent players of their generations are back, and it's hard to know who's happier - golf fans or Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson.

"I've been looking forward to that question, as opposed to the women's issue," Johnson said Wednesday, when asked about Jack and Arnie's return halfway through his contentious news conference.

Their goals this week are different - "I'd like to finish first, obviously," Nicklaus said - but they were united in the feeling that Johnson misstepped last year when he hastily drew up a rule to limit the lifetime exemption for past Masters champions to age 65.

Before the 2002 event, Johnson sent letters to aging former champions Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper, suggesting they not play. A little later, he announced the new policy, and that was partly why Palmer, who hasn't made the cut since 1983, said he wouldn't return.

"I don't want to get a letter," Palmer said famously last year.

Instead, the 73-year-old Palmer sent Hootie a letter of his own: the 63-year-old Nicklaus did the same.

They suggested to Johnson that taking away the past-champion's exemption would be a misguided step toward turning the Masters into "just another tournament."

"If we just resign ourselves to having the everyday tournament, and it has nothing to do with who won or why they won or how they won, then you lose some of the tradition that made the tournament what it is," Palmer said.

In what was certainly his strongest public-relations move during a year of questionable ones, Johnson relented last month, with the caveat that players police themselves, and decide when they no longer belong.

"I guess you might say that I overfixed our problem," Johnson said.

Palmer admits he has already reached the point at which he is no longer competitive.

His goal, though, is to play two more Masters to make it an even 50 - and given his history in the sport and at this event, nobody is going to argue.

"It's fun reminiscing and looking back," said Palmer, whose four wins here from 1958-64 were key in delivering a rich man's game to the masses.

Nicklaus, a six-time champion, is also returning, after sitting out a year because of back problems that ruined his swing.

"I've got to go and relearn how to play the game of golf," Nicklaus said. "I would love to have a golf game. I don't think I'm there yet, obviously."

But unlike Palmer, Nicklaus is not simply happy playing ceremonial golf. He's here to compete, and aside from winning, he feels a top-10 finish is realistic if he plays really well.

"You've got to have some goal," he said. "I've never enjoyed finishing 20th. I might as well shoot for closer to the top."

One good omen: The Golden Bear looks fit and lean and says he hasn't felt this good since the mid-1990s. In 1998, playing without feeling in his hurting left leg, he electrified the gallery by challenging for the lead and finishing sixth at age 58.

Of course, either guy would make the gallery happy just by showing up.

When Palmer made what was supposed to be his final walk up the 18th fairway last year, fans packed 20 and 25 deep just to catch a glimpse of The King. They didn't want him to go, and as it turned out, he didn't really want to leave.

Or at least that's what he thought. After spending some time on a waterlogged course eerily similar to the one that ate him up last year, Palmer knows he's got a tough two days ahead of him.

"It's very hard out there," he said. "But I'm going to tee it up because I said I would. That's the way I do things. I've made mistakes before."

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