It was Memorial Day 1999 when I saw Arnold Palmer play golf.
He came to the Brainerd lakes area to inspect his latest contribution to the game, Deacon's Lodge. The 18-hole masterpiece was finished and needed final approval from the man who helped design it.
On Saturday, Palmer cordially, and respectfully, retired from the Masters. After his first-round 89 (17 over par), Palmer knew it was time to leave the tournament before the tournament left him.
He grabbed a golf cart and went in front of TV cameras and declared Friday was to be his final round at Augusta National. Like everything else in his life, he did it his way.
"Watching him get choked up, gets me choked up," said Madden's Resort golf professional Chris Foley, who was at Deacon's Lodge for Palmer's visit.
"It's kind of an end of an era," Foley added. "He's a huge part of the Masters. You associate the Masters with Arnold Palmer. He's the first golf pro to be a member at Augusta. For years, they didn't have any professional golfers there and they invited Palmer to join, and now Jack Nicklaus is a member as well."
Palmer is more than a 72-year-old, four-time Masters champion. He helped bring golf back into the spotlight. Like Bobby Jones (architect of Augusta National) in the 1920s and 1930s, Palmer was a hero, a legend, an ambassador.
Palmer may have had the most loyal "army" in the world. Everywhere he played, his fans followed in droves. Similar to those who follow Tiger Woods now, Palmer commanded everyone's attention.
"The fact it's one less opportunity to watch Palmer play golf, period, is the sad thing," said Deacon's Lodge golf professional Mark Neva. "He has such a limited schedule on the Senior tour and now we won't see him participating in major golf. It's sad we won't get to see him play golf. Whether he's competitive or not that's beside the point."
That's why when Palmer came to Breezy Point in 1999, he was treated like a king. Like Robert Trent Jones Jr. did for Cragun's, Palmer brought credibility to a small town, by putting his signature on a golf course. He helped turn an area screaming for attention from the golf industry into the world's 44th best place to play, according to Golf Digest.
About 500 people attended the ceremonial grand opening at Deacon's Lodge.
"That was the third time I had seen Palmer play," Foley said. "The thing that always amazes me is that he's a down to earth guy. He's the people's golfer and he's so accommodating to everybody.
"The game wouldn't be where it is if it wasn't for Palmer. He brought golf to the masses. A working man's golfer, he exemplifies what every golfer would like to be. His swing isn't as pretty as most swings, but he went for everything and people liked to see that. The impact that he brought the game ... he did what Tiger Woods is doing now in the 60s. "
Gov. Jesse Ventura was there too, but nobody really listened to the "Body." The crowd was hypnotized by the "King." Everything Palmer said and did was followed by hesitated laughter or applause to make sure that was the reaction he wanted.
"Just the aura," said Neva about that Memorial Day. "It's as if he has this golfing halo. I literally got chills seeing him in person. When he climbed out of the van and there you are standing 10 feet from him it was amazing. What a great way to christen our facility."
Most of the crowd was just happy to share a day with Palmer.
"He was in his element when he did that," Foley said. "He would rather do that than play without a gallery. Palmer just loves to play golf. For a lot of guys, it's just like a job. Palmer still to this day tees it up every day. He's playing every day and he's playing with the members of whatever club he's at."
Palmer has never returned to Deacon's Lodge, and may never be back. With more than 100 courses he's designed, and the busy schedule he already keeps, the Brainerd area may never be graced with the presence of the "King" again.
But we can still hope.
"With a senior event at the TPC in Blaine," Neva said, "we anticipate that we will see him again in Minnesota. We hope that he hops in a plane and comes for a visit. He can see his design in a more mature state."
Palmer only played nine holes that Memorial Day, but it was nine holes he had never played before and never seen completed. Still, at the age of 70, he parred Deacon's.
For 500 people including a sports writer, Palmer turned one Memorial Day into a day to remember.
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