AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Arnold Palmer walks Augusta National Golf Club on the Thursdays and Fridays of The Masters like a city councilman in the Memorial Day parade, laughing and joking, kissing the beautiful ladies and winking to the cheering husbands. He steals a bite of ice cream at the ropes here, drops himself into a fan's seat there, golf's greatest ambassador pushing into his 70's as popular as ever.
He had his goodbye at The Masters a year ago, a beautiful, emotional farewell in his final tournament. It was time, Palmer confessed. They were starting to send out letters to past champions telling them they were no longer welcome as competitive players because, well, they were so non-competitive now. At the tournament's end, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson had instituted a new policy of ending a past champion's Masters career at 65 year old, a policy that was to start in 2004.
Palmer wasn't going to wait. The gift of Arnie was always leaving everyone at ease. He had done it again.
Nobody wanted to tell him to leave. Nobody.
"My golf has been pretty lousy," Palmer said. "It doesn't warrant being here playing. And that's enough to push me over the edge and just say, hey, enough is enough."
Enough was enough. He hadn't made a cut since 1983. He was doing the right thing for his legacy, for this tournament, for everyone. And after the late Sam Snead cracked some poor fan between the eyes with that Thursday morning tee shot, Hootie had the perfect part waiting for Palmer at the 2003 Masters: Permanent Masters honorary starter.
Somehow, Arnold Palmer had a change of heart. Maybe he couldn't live without the loving cheers on the course. Maybe he had fooled himself into believing he still has a chance to make the cut for the first time in 19 years. Maybe he's just one more great old athlete unable to drag himself off the stage. Whatever the reason, Palmer and Jack Nicklaus wrote letters to Johnson and visited him in Augusta over the winter. They talked him into rescinding the rule.
Of all policies at Augusta National, they changed this one.
"I over-fixed our problem," Johnson said Wednesday morning. He believed the spirit of Masters founding fathers, Cliff Roberts and Bobby Jones, intended that "the lifetime exemption was for a champion who believed that he would be competive and would play 36 holes to try to make the cut. And (Palmer and Nicklaus) were in agreement with that."
Nicklaus isn't the issue. He could've won this tournament at 58 years old if a putt or two had fallen for him on the back nine on that Sunday in 1998. He can still make the cut. Sadly, this is about Arnie. He shot 30-over-par, finishing with rounds of 89 and 85, a year ago. Thirty over par. This isn't competitive. This is you and me. Great old golfers are no different than the rest of sports' great old athletes: Sometimes, they have to be told to leave, because they can't see it themselves.
Listen, nobody wants to run Arnold Palmer out of The Masters. He popularized golf in America. He brought it to the masses. And if Palmer could do this within the context of a credible golf game, he should get a chance to play his 50th Masters next year. Only, he can't. He is going to miss the cut for the 20th straight time. And if you're playing in the threesome behind him on these Thursdays and Fridays, his act is aggravating. It's unfair. It slows down play. It bogs down the tournament.
He shouldn't be playing golf in The Masters. Augusta National had a good plan for the old champions at future tournaments. They go to the champions dinner Tuesday night and everyone comes out Wednesday to watch them in the Par 3 Tournament. This is still The Masters. This is still honoring them. For Palmer, he should take Hootie Johnson's offer to be the ceremonial starter, hitting that first tee shot on Thursday morning and letting the love wash over him.
He isn't ready to do it, so Johnson said, "We're going to wait on him."
Better get used to waiting on him, too. Arnold Palmer is going back out on the course Thursday. And everyone will be waiting on him. And waiting. And waiting. When he isn't stopping over to the gallery to laugh and joke and play the town councilman on parade, Palmer will be chasing his ball there. His golf has been lousy. It doesn't warrant him playing here. Arnold Palmer said so himself. The Masters should've held him to his word.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.