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Masters Disasters Part 2: Arnie still can't shake off '61 blunder

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Over the years, nobody exchanged more eye contact, nods of the head or winks with the gallery than the man who would eventually develop a fan base so large, it had a nickname of its own.

It's what helped him become the most popular, enduring player in the game and why Arnold Palmer was dubbed the King. More than once, the fans metaphorically lifted their man and willed him to win.

But exactly five decades ago, mixing with the minions of Arnie's Army arguably cost him the 1961 Masters Tournament title.

'I had a one-shot lead, but I kind of forgot you have to finish,' Palmer says about his loss in 1961. (Getty Images)  
'I had a one-shot lead, but I kind of forgot you have to finish,' Palmer says about his loss in 1961. (Getty Images)  
At a place where he was the most dominant, dashing figure for more than a decade, and eventually became a member, Palmer has few regrets. But the 18th hole of the '61 event was one big, blurry, self-induced debacle. Palmer once blew a seven-shot back-nine lead at a U.S. Open, but the mistake he made at Augusta National was a mental gaffe he's talked about for five decades since.

With Gary Player already in the clubhouse and trailing him by a shot, Palmer hit his approach on the final hole and was unaware that it hopped into a greenside bunker. As he was walking up the hill, Palmer looked over and spotted an old friend.

It's a story Palmer has repeated often, and even given the benefit of perspective and hindsight, it gnaws at him still. Palmer, then 31, walked over to the ropes.

"He said, 'Congratulations,' and I shook hands with him," Palmer said. "I said, 'Thank you.'"

It wasn't nearly over, even though a bogey would have cemented a place in a playoff with Player. Palmer arrived at the green to find his ball buried in the sand and bladed his bunker shot over the green. He followed with an absent-minded putt from the sloping fringe that rolled 15 feet past the hole. Then he uncharacteristically missed.

The partisan crowd groaned -- Palmer had handed the title to Player with a double-bogey, making the South African the first international winner in Masters history. Palmer eventually realized that he'd totally lost his train of thought, beginning with his premature victory handshake.

Masters Disasters

Losing because of poor execution, he could handle. But going blank mentally was something that has rankled him for years.

"That was a bad mistake, one that I shouldn't have done," Palmer said in a 1993 biography. "But any other golf tournament that I lost or won, I accept the conditions in which I won or lost.''

It was complete brain lock, he said.

"The only shot I took any time on at all at 18 was that 15-foot putt, and by that time, it was too late," he said. He'd wasted a memorably rally. Palmer started the day four shots behind Player, who had saved par from the same greenside bunker at the 18th about a half-hour ahead of Palmer.

As if the details of the last hole weren't tough enough to stomach, Palmer, the defending champion, had to slip the winner's jacket over Player's shoulders a few minutes later at the champion's ceremony.

It was a hard lesson learned -- Palmer was seeking to become the first Masters champ to defend his title -- but he took it to heart and found a new rival. He won again in 1962 and '64 to give him four Augusta titles in all, while Player won two more times.

In fact, had the King not blown it on the 72nd hole in 1961, he would have claimed the green jacket an astounding five times in a seven-year span.

"I never thought for one minute that I wasn't going to win," Palmer said after the round. "I had a one-shot lead, but I kind of forgot you have to finish."

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