Plenty of love for Palmer at final Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He looked tired, but you could see in his features that Arnold Palmer had made peace with the idea that after 50 Masters, after 150 rounds, he had competed for the last time.

"I'm not going to make a big, long speech today," Palmer said. "I'm through. I've had it. I'm done. Cooked. Washed up. Finished."

A smile crept onto his face, as it usually has when he is at the Augusta National Golf Club.

"Augusta and this golf tournament has been about (as much) a part of my life as anything other than my family," Palmer said. "I don't think I could ever separate myself from this club and this tournament. I may not be present, I may not be here, but I'll still be a part of what happens here, only because I want to be."

Statisticians will remember that Palmer shot his second consecutive 84 on Friday. But the golf fans who have revered him for so long stopped worrying about what Palmer shot a long time ago.

Among those fans was one Davis Love III. He has finished second in two Masters. On Friday, he shot a 67 and won a crystal vase for the low score of the round, a trinket he has won five times. Love is tied for sixth at two-under 142, four shots back of Justin Rose.

Yet one of the fondest memories of Love's 15 Masters occurred Wednesday, when he played a nine-hole tune-up with Palmer.

"He came out on the range," Love said. "I could tell he was looking for somebody. I said, 'Are you going to play?' The guy he was going to play with, I guess, had already taken off. I said, 'Well, you can come play with me.' "

Practice rounds are informal. But still, can you imagine, not waiting around to play with Arnie? At Augusta National? In his 50th and final Masters? Love understood how special the opportunity was.

"So I blew Freddie off," Love said with a grin, referring to his good friend Fred Couples.

In 1964, when Palmer won his fourth and final Masters, he shared the first-round lead with two other major championship winners, Gary Player and Kel Nagle; Bob Goalby; and Davis Love Jr., who wasn't even sure he would be able to complete the tournament because his wife expected to deliver a baby at any moment.

Davis Jr. finished tied for 34th. The following day, Davis III was born. He turns 40 on Tuesday.

Love lost his father in a plane crash in 1988.

"He talked about my dad," Love said of Palmer. "It's just amazing, the little things he remembers, that my dad qualified through the U.S. Amateur to get here in '55, and Arnold remembered, and he remembered the matches that he won."

Palmer remembered because he won that 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Detroit Country Club. In 1955, he, too, played in his first Masters, and tied for 10th. Palmer had turned pro.

For that top-10 finish, he earned $696.

"He's been good to me since I was a very small child," Love said, "so it was an honor to get to play with him in his last Masters."

Love needed a taste of vintage Arnie to get back into this Masters. When you shoot a 75 in the opening round, you've got to set aside all the bromides about being patient in a major, accepting par, blah-blah-blah and force yourself back into the tournament.

It's usually easy to spot the golfers who fire at the Augusta National pins -- they're the ones cleaning out their lockers on Friday evening. But Love went out and made an eagle and five birdies on his way to a 67. The eagle, his first at Augusta National in six years, came on a 50-foot bomb at the 500-yard 15th hole and got his name back on the leaderboard.

"Hopefully, I can build on that eagle and say that, hey, I can play these holes aggressively and make some birdies and some eagles," Love said.

It is the coda by which Palmer played throughout his career, most famously on these grounds. Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said Wednesday that "after Bobby Jones founding this place, I guess Arnold has meant more to the Masters than anyone."

That may come as a surprise to the ghost of Clifford Roberts, the co-founder of the club and the man who ran this tournament with an iron fist until his death in 1976. And it may come as a surprise to those who favor Jack Nicklaus, winner of six green jackets. But Palmer is as much a part of Augusta National as pimiento cheese sandwiches and pollen. He and the tournament nurtured televised golf, which in turn made them the two biggest attractions in the sport.

Nicklaus, after shooting a second consecutive 75 to miss the cut by two shots, said he didn't know if he would return next year for his 45th Masters. Nicklaus received a rousing ovation at No. 18, especially after he stiffed a pitch within two feet to save par.

Nicklaus took off his hat and waved at the patrons. As he bent down to fix his ball mark, a woman yelled, "That's a gimme!"

Nicklaus looked up at her and said drily, "Someplace else."

The Golden Bear may or may not come back, but Palmer has made up his mind. He hasn't made the cut since 1983. He hasn't shot a round of par since 1985. He hasn't broken 80 since 2001.

And no one cares.

They applauded him as he left the first tee, "they" including the fans on the other side of the adjacent ninth fairway. He doffed his visor no more than several hundred times.

Perhaps the only living thing at Augusta National unimpressed with Palmer on Friday was the snake he nearly stepped on as he took a shortcut through the ditch on the 13th hole.

"I don't know whether it was a moccasin or not," Palmer said, and he turned to the press conference moderator, Billy Payne. "I'm going to guess it was, wouldn't you, Billy?"

Payne, a fellow member of Augusta National, never broke his deadpan.

"We don't have snakes here," he said.

After the laughter subsided, Palmer said, "Well, if I had felt a little tired, I didn't then. I came out of there and I was flying."

His feet barely touched the ground when he walked up the 18th fairway as well. The gallery applauded him for 90 seconds as he approached his second shot.

"I thought about how many times I've walked up that 18th fairway," Palmer said. "I can think of the four times I won the Masters. I can think of a couple of times I didn't win and should have ... Whether it be making a 6 at the last hole to lose the Masters (in 1961), or whether it be hitting a 7-iron in about four feet to make a putt to win the Masters (in 1960), all of those things go through my mind."

Palmer waved goodbye two years ago, when Johnson decreed that no Masters champion over 65 would be allowed to start. Johnson might not back down to Martha Burk, but he acquiesced on this issue.

"That farewell was created by other people than me," Palmer said. "I never really felt that that was the end. I was more obliging than giving up."

That may be the first time that the words "Palmer" and "giving up" have ever appeared in a sentence together. He may view this battle that no one ever wins as a defeat. But he gave up on his terms.

"The fact is that one of the things I wanted to do was what I did today," Palmer said, "and that was finish 50 years at Augusta."

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach him at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.