Palmer - One more round at Augusta

Thursday, April 11, 2002

AP Sports WriterAUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Arnold Palmer is walking away from the Masters before he's told to stay away.

The 72-year-old Palmer shot a 17-over-par 89 in the opening round Thursday, equaling his worst score at the tournament he first played in 1955.

He then announced matter-of-factly what many had expected: He will play one more round Friday, then retire from the Masters.

"This is it," Palmer said. "The writing is kind of on the wall. I've kind of been contemplating this for some time anyway."

Even though Masters champions are supposed to have a lifetime exemption, Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson sent a letter to Doug Ford, Billy Casper and Gay Brewer "recommending" they not play this year.

The three -- all in their 70s -- agreed to drop out, but Brewer was so upset that he boycotted the Champions Dinner.

Palmer decided to go out on his own terms.

"I don't want to get a letter," the four-time champion quipped. "My golf has been pretty lousy of late. It doesn't warrant being here playing."

Palmer was clearly overmatched by the longer Augusta layout. In an effort to keep up with advancing technology, the course was stretched by nearly 300 yards this year.

"If I thought there was a chance I could play the kind of golf I expect to play, I certainly wouldn't stop," Palmer said. "But most all of you know, I haven't played good in some time. That is enough to push me over the edge.

"Enough is enough."

The game will go on without Palmer, of course.

Tiger Woods, trying to become only the third man to win back-to-back green jackets, played an up-and-down round but was right in the thick of things with a 2-under-par 70.

U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen opened with a 69 for the clubhouse lead, while Woods, Scott Verplank, Jesper Parnevik, Chris DiMarco, Ernie Els and Jose Maria Olazabal were one stroke back.

Greg Norman, who got into the Masters on a special invitation, opened with a surprising 71.

"I want to win this tournament," said the Shark, a crowd favorite after years of heartache at Augusta National. "Yeah, I feel it, I sense it. No question I sense it. It's nice to be in a position where people are pulling for you as hard as they are."

But the biggest cheers were reserved for Palmer, who'll get an even greater send-off when he plays his final 18 holes Friday.

The King won the tournament in 1958, '60, '62 and '64, helping to popularize the tournament at the dawn of the television age. His slashing swing and dashing style turned on a whole generation of fans, who were dubbed, "Arnie's Army."

Jack Nicklaus claimed the spotlight and went on to even greater heights, including a record six victories in the Masters. Palmer had not contended at Augusta since the mid-'70s; he made his last cut in 1983.

Woods is trying to join Nicklaus (1965-66) and Nick Faldo (1989-90) as the only golfers to win consecutive titles. Norman would be happy with just one victory at Augusta National.

He has been the runner-up three times and is best known for his collapse in 1996, when he went to the final day with a six-stroke lead only to soar to a 78 and lose to Nick Faldo.

On Thursday, Norman opened with 11 straight pars, birdied 12 and 13, then had four more pars before missing a 5-footer to save par at the final hole.

Among those still on the course, Padraig Harrington was 6 under through 11 holes, while David Toms and Bernhard Langer were 3 under on the front nine.

Augusta National has expanded by nearly 300 yards in an attempt to fend off the technological advances that allowed most players to hit wedges into the par-4 greens.

Woods pushed his tee shot at No. 1 -- some 30 yards longer -- into the bunker along the right side of the fairway, a shot that would have cleared the sand a year ago.

But he recovered to make par, then began a streak of three straight birdies at the 350-yard No. 3 -- a hole that was left untouched amid all the changes. A mammoth drive that put him about 50 yards to the flag, a wedge got him to 12 feet and he rolled in the putt.

Woods also got into trouble. At the 14th, he hooked his tee shot into the trees, punched a grounder into the fairway and took bogey. But he bounced back with birdies on 15 and 17.

A year ago, Woods completed his unprecedented sweep of the four major tournaments by winning the Masters for the second time.

Palmer actually reached the fringe of the green with his second shot of the day, but his putt rolled over a hump -- far left of the flag -- and curled down the other side. He stared incredulously at his ball while the crowd groaned in disappointment.

Palmer then putted about 12 feet past the cup and missed the comebacker, the ball catching the left lip before spinning out. He tapped in for a double-bogey.

"Well, that was four good putts," Palmer quipped to the gallery.

He finished the front nine with three more double-bogeys, but was clearly enjoying the moment. He stopped along the ropes numerous times to chat with adoring fans.

Woods was asked if he could envision playing the Masters at Palmer's age.

"I hope I'm still on this side of the grass at 72," Woods replied, smiling.

While the course now measures almost 7,300 yards, damp greens and overcast skies provided optimum scoring conditions in the morning. The sun came out in the afternoon, hardening up the tightly cut greens.

Sam Snead started things off by participating in his 62nd straight Masters. He struck a ceremonial first tee shot that flew right into the gallery and struck a spectator in the face.

The 89-year-old Snead is recovering from strokelike symptoms that surfaced about six weeks ago.

"I got it off the ground," Snead said after walking off the first tee.

The spectator was not seriously hurt. He was treated for a scratched nose and his glasses also were broken.

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