Long Live the King

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Augusta, GA (Sports Network) - He hasn't made the cut in the Masters since Ronald Reagan was in the Oval Office. His last top-10 at Augusta National came when a little band called the Beatles released the songs "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields."

And the last time he donned the green jacket as Masters champion, a Dallas, Texas jury convicted Jack Ruby of murdering Lee Harvey Oswald.

So why is this such an amazing day for Arnold Palmer?

After he missed the cut on Friday, Palmer completed his run as a competitor at the Masters. It was a special week to do it, as this was his 50th consecutive appearance at the tournament.

That itself warrants all of the attention. For five decades, Arnold Palmer showed up and played in golf's most prestigious tournament. Never had a creaky back or a flare up of allergies that so many others complain about at Augusta National. He came, much to the delight of the galleries.

It's hard to speculate why Palmer showed up, even when it was obvious his days of playing on the weekend were behind him. Maybe it was for the galleries, the "Army" that followed him so religiously earlier in his career and on Friday. Or Palmer's competitive drive was fueled by a course that he routinely dominated to the tune of 12 top-10s in a 13-year span, starting in 1955.

Obviously some of the attention points to the fact that Palmer is four-time Masters champion. He claimed the title every other year from 1958 and he did it as bridge from the older era, the Nelson, Hogans and Sneads, to the Nicklaus years.

Each victory at Augusta was memorable for different reasons. In 1958, the story was the favorable ruling he received on the par-three 12th, something that Ken Venturi has tried to profit on in recent weeks. Even that can't dampen people's love for The King. Palmer claimed major championship No. 1.

In 1960, Palmer trailed Venturi by one with two holes to play. Palmer birdied 17 then knocked his approach to seven feet and sank the birdie putt at 18 to take this in comeback fashion.

The 1962 Masters saw Palmer down two shots with three to play. He chipped in for birdie at 16, then birdied 17 to force a playoff with Gary Player, already a Masters champion, and Dow Finsterwald. Back then it was an 18-hole playoff and Palmer trailed after the first nine. He threw a 31 at them on the back side and won by three.

The 1964 Masters is interesting for no other reason than how much it mirrors the edition 40 years later. Palmer hadn't won a major the previous year and went to Augusta with something to prove. Sounds like Tiger. Palmer won the '64 Masters by six. Jury is still out on Tiger's 2004 Masters.

He did it all in a manner that left no choice but for people to enlist in "Arnie's Army." Palmer's bold play sparked emotion from fans, coupled with the fact that he took time to interact with the galleries and that made him adored. Even on Friday, Palmer still looked like he was personally saying thank you to someone who shouted words of encouragement.

But Palmer's final round was a memorable one. How memorable would be up to the game of 74-year-old legend who shot an 84 in the first round. After some hand-shaking with 92-year-old fellow deity Byron Nelson and a pep talk from Augusta National chairman, Hootie Johnson, Palmer laced one down the fairway at No 1.

From there it was pleasantries with familiar faces in the gallery and staff. Golf was not at a premium although pride wouldn't allow him to go out there and give less than everything he had.

Some solid golf even crept through on Friday. At the knee-knocking 12th, Palmer hit his tee ball to seven feet. The birdie putt came up short, but who cared? Arnie knocked it close.

One had to wonder how Palmer's elbow felt from taking off his visor and tipping his cap to the crowd so often. Or his thumb that was constantly raised? Arthritis here we come.

So he finally made it to the 18th. He found the fairway and waited for the group ahead to clear the green. As he stood there with his grandson, Sam Saunders on the bag, he went over and joked with the gallery. Vintage Arnie.

With a fairway metal in his hand, Palmer ran it up the fairway, coming up short of the bunker. and Nathan Smith, Palmer's playing partners in Masters No. 50, played their approaches and no producer needed to light the "Applause" sign.

The walk up 18. The last one. All by himself.

Tim Petrovic and , a former Masters champion and in the thick of the tournament in '04, waited greenside for the King. Palmer played a spectacular chip to three feet then finally kept the visor off his head, presumably tired of having to take it off and wave it.

Palmer missed the putt on the right edge. Didn't matter because he was all smiles. The final records show Palmer shot his second 84 in as many days but that wasn't what the story is about.

After a procession of hand-shaking with green jackets, Palmer signed his scorecard, thus ending the competitive career of the man who made Augusta National and the Masters what it is today. He rode off on a golf cart with security alongside, looking more like a presidential motorcade than a golfer.

"The fans have been very supportive," said a tearful Palmer. "That's part of the reason I have played as long as I have. My competitiveness, even though it hasn't shown up lately, is still there. It's just not in the old body to make it happen."

Palmer has an offer to be the honorary starter next year and in talking to CBS after the round, he seemed to be very interested. Come back next year and every year, Arnie. The Masters could never be the same without you.

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