Commentary

Palmer opens Masters, just like he's opened doors for 50 years

Updated: April 10, 2008, 8:07 PM ET
By Ron Sirak | Golf World

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- While watching Arnold Palmer's ceremonial opening tee shot fade into the fog that delayed play for an hour in Thursday's first round of the Masters, the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" came to mind. Palmer is the George Bailey of golf.

Let me explain. George Bailey, the main character played by Jimmy Stewart in the classic Christmas movie, gets a chance to see what the world would have been like -- specifically his hometown of Bedford Falls -- if he had never lived. As Palmer twisted into his corkscrew follow through, the iconic image triggered a nightmarish vision of what golf would have been like without Palmer.

The Arnold Palmer Era -- the single most effective grow-the-game program in the history of golf -- began here at Augusta National Golf Club when he made the 1958 Masters the first of his seven major professional titles. But the really important victory by Arnold came two years later in the British Open -- ironically when he finished second to Kel Nagle at St. Andrews. Sometimes triumph is found not in the results but in the process.

After winning the Masters and the U.S. Open in 1960, Palmer and his agent, Mark McCormack, founder of International Management Group, decided he should play in the centennial Open Championship at St. Andrews. That did two things: It put the oldest championship in golf back on the map after American players had avoided it for years, and it began the globalization of golf -- a growth much in evidence at this year's Masters.

The 94 players who teed it up Thursday at Augusta National were from 22 countries; a little more than half are from outside the United States. Australia has nine in the field, South Africa seven and England six. The only one of the seven continents not represented at Augusta National this week is Antarctica, which has a really short golf season -- but plenty of penguins.

The leaderboard in the first round had a very international flavor with names such as Justin Rose and Ian Poulter of England; the South African Trevor Immelman; Robert Karlsson of Sweden and Stephen Ames of Canada by way of Trinidad and Tobago. Peter Lonard of Australia and Jeev Mikha Singh of India were also under par while the prohibitive favorite coming into the Masters, Tiger Woods, could do no better than a par 72.

Here is the chain of events as I see it: Palmer saves the Open Championship (he won it in 1961 and '62), in part, by establishing the concept of the professional Grand Slam. Until Palmer went into the British Open in 1960 with two majors under his belt, the Grand Slam had been what Bobby Jones did in 1930 when he won the U.S. and British Open and the U.S. and British Amateur.

By establishing a new quest -- the professional Grand Slam, as yet an unachieved aspiration although Tiger Woods has it as his target this year -- Palmer made the Open Championship an event the best players in the world had to play. And by restoring relevance to the British Open, Palmer made it possible for the European Tour to exist. Without the European Tour, all the best players in the world would be on the PGA Tour -- instead of just most of them.

In the decade and a half immediately after World War II, the power center of golf had shifted from economically strapped Britain, where the game was born, to the United States. The best tournaments, the best players and the most money were in America. Without the restoration to prominence of the Open Championship, it was only a matter of time before it folded, and all who wanted to make a living playing the game would do so in the United States.

Nearly 20 years after Palmer played at St. Andrews, the Ryder Cup expanded from Great Britain and Ireland to all of Europe, and the growth of the game was off and running. By the mid-1990s, it was necessary to add the Presidents Cup to include the abundance of talent from South Africa, Australia, Asia, Canada and Latin America. This expansion also produced financial windfalls for players by creating a worldwide market in which they could capitalize on endorsement opportunities.

The Masters has served as a certificate of validation for many non-Americans, including Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Ian Woosnam, Bernhard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal and Nick Faldo. Augusta National was also the scene of one of the most painful collapses in the history of golf when Australian Greg Norman gave up a six-stroke lead in the final round in 1996 to lose to Faldo. The tournament is now televised in more than 100 countries and is easily the most-watched golf event in the world.

What Palmer did in 1960 was much more than save the Open Championship. He opened the door for the global growth of golf. The fruits of that expansion of the game is much in evidence this week at Augusta National, as demonstrated by a very international leaderboard after the first day of play. And if Woods comes from behind to win his fifth green jacket, talk of the Grand Slam will resound from every corner of the world.

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine

Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine.

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