Masters 2017: Arnold Palmer's absence will loom especially large at Augusta National

It was announced Tuesday that Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player will hit ceremonial tee shots to start the 2017 Masters at 7:40 a.m. ET on Thursday. This is the same tradition that happened in 2016, but there will be one figure noticeably missing. Arnold Palmer’s last ceremonial tee shot at Augusta National came in 2015. He watched last year. The big three was still the big three.

Palmer passed away last fall at the age of 87. His spirit will be honored all week on the grounds, though. He was an honorary starter for 10 years and hit shots for nine of them. He was one of only three men (Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods) to win this tournament four or more times. Palmer was one of nine golfers historically who hit the ceremonial shots. 

Golfers will pay their respects. Patrons will chat about him. And all those involved with the event will remember the man who helped make this tournament what it is today. 

“Our Masters special this year is going to be a very special one,” said CBS Sports broadcaster Jim Nantz, who hosted Palmer’s last known public interview at the 2016 Masters and also delivered an emotional eulogy at Palmer’s funeral.

The interview will air Sunday on CBS at 1 p.m. with Player, Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson joining the special to reflect on Palmer’s career at this tournament.

“It’s all really strong storytelling almost, if you will, love letters from all of these three who care so much about Arnold,” added Nantz. “Then the back half of the show is the last known interview with Arnold. It’s never been aired before.

“I was fortunate to have a very special friendship with Arnold. A lot of people did. Arnold had many, many friends. I loved the man. I had said to him a couple of times leading up to the tournament week that if you felt up to it and you wanted to go down to Butler Cabin, it’d be fun. One more time just to kind of update what we’ve done in the past and sit down and talk about your history at Augusta. He goes, ‘That’d be great. Let’s wait until that day comes around and see how I’m feeling.’”

Nantz saw him on Thursday last year.

“He looked at me and gave me that Arnie thumbs up and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

I get goosebumps just thinking about how Palmer’s last known interview was taped at Augusta one year ago -- and that it has never been aired before. Palmer played in the Masters a total of 50 times. He was an icon even before he joined the ceremonial tee shot group.

“As soon as the lights came on and the first question was presented to him about showing up to Augusta in 1955 it was almost as if he suddenly had turned back the clock,” said Nantz of the interview. “When the lights came on in Butler Cabin, Arnold was on.

“Arnold understood what we were doing. He knew that we would handle it delicately and one day that it would air at the right time. Arnold didn’t need any help at all. He was fantastic.”

The humorous ending is that Palmer could not get out of the Augusta airport because first lady Michelle Obama was flying nearby. He was stuck at Augusta on that Thursday as his final moments on a course he’d been to a thousand times waned. Nantz, and others in attendance, knew there was the possibility that this was the last trip to Augusta National for this tournament for Palmer.

They were right. 

“A group of us there there to see him leave the grounds of Augusta, and he never returned,” said Nantz. “It’s a day I’ll never forget. That was his last visit to the Masters.”

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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