Arnold Palmer: 'The King' and his mulligan at Augusta

Biographer: Arnold Palmer brought golf to the masses
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Story highlights

  • In 2003, Arnold Palmer was paired with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player at Masters Par-3 Contest
  • He plunked a ball in the water on No. 6, but took a mulligan as the crowd cheered him on

(CNN)My father came from that old-school league of golf enthusiasts. He was part of Arnie's Army, legend Arnold Palmer's legion of fans, and he loved to sit around the bar at his local American Legion telling stories about guys like Fuzzy Zoeller and Lee Trevino as if he knew them.

Trevino was once hit by lightning in 1975, and my pops used to repeat Trevino's joke that he should've been holding a 1-iron at the time.
"Not even God can hit a 1-iron," he'd say.
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Palmer and Zoeller were his favorites, though. My dad had little use for snobbery, and he felt guys like Palmer and Zoeller were everymen who made the oft-lofty game of golf accessible to regular folks.
That meant more to him than whether they could crush a drive or drop an approach shot on a dime (and they both could in their days).

Skipping class, heading to Augusta

In 2003, my last year of grad school at the University of Georgia, the family of a close friend, Alex, won the lottery for tickets to the Masters' practice rounds. Al and I decided to blow off classes that Wednesday and make the 100-mile drive from Athens down to Augusta for the Par-3 Contest.
As opposed to the serious business of vying for the Augusta National's coveted green jacket, the Par 3 tourney is a lark. The strict code of decorum by which fans must abide during the actual Masters is set aside for this nearly 60-year-old tradition.
Arnold Palmer, far left, was paired with golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player that day.
Golfers interact with the fans and give high fives as they walk to the tee boxes. They sign hats and balls. Some bring their kids or grandkids as caddies. And cameras, which are strictly prohibited during the Masters, are more than welcome.
So, I bundled up the Canon SLR and lenses that my father had bought me when I decided to become a journalist and jumped in the car with Al.
I'm a more passive golf fan than was my dad, so I was excited to see a then-27-year-old Tiger Woods. You may have heard of him. At the time, he was the No. 1 golfer in the world. Now? Not so much.

Parade of stars

Al and I had primo seats right on the rope, so the golfers walked within feet of us as they made their way to the tee box on Hole 6. After I shot nearly a roll of film of Woods, I began taking photos for my dad.
I got pictures of Colin Montgomerie, Jay Haas, Fred Couples, Tom Watson, K.J. Choi, Brad Faxon, Sergio Garcia, Mike Weir and a host of others. Pops especially loved the images of Zoeller, true to form, hamming it up with the crowd.
Fuzzy Zoeller goofs off with the crowd.
Then came "The King" -- Palmer, in the flesh, paired with none other than Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, a triumvirate that owned Augusta in the 1960s and 1970s (they won a collective 13 green jackets between 1958 and 1986).
The spectators loved the grouping. Palmer, 73 at the time, approached the tee box, and the crowd erupted. "Go get 'em, Arnie!" fans yelled. Palmer beamed and shook hands with fans, accessible as ever.
As he addressed the ball, the crowd fell quiet. Palmer took his swing and you could tell from the grimace on his face that he didn't like the shot.
Plunk! It landed right in the water, short of the green. The crowd let out a disappointed groan. Palmer shrugged and gave us a sheepish smirk.

The King's mulligan

Perhaps emboldened by the loose etiquette at the Par 3 Contest -- or maybe it was the famously cheap beer Al and I had been quaffing while playing hooky that day -- I stood up out of my green folding chair and said, "Mulligan!"
Palmer knew he didn't like his first shot, even before it hit the water.
(For the uninitiated, a mulligan, for lack of a better description, is the act of ignoring a crappy shot and taking another stroke in its place without counting the crappy shot. It's basically cheating. As a guy who can't shoot nine holes without a mulligan or two, I can say it's a practice common among weekend hacks, not pro golfers of Palmer's caliber.)
The crowd exploded in agreement, and Palmer flashed that endearing smile. He looked around as if to ask no one in particular if it was OK, but no one was going to question "The King."
He teed up again, took another swing and this one flew true, this time clearing the water, to the crowd's elation. Laughing, Palmer pumped his club in the air for the crowd and headed to the green with Nicklaus, Player and their caddies.
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That was my brush with "The King." My dad was tickled when I told him the story, but he wasn't surprised. That's the kind of down-to-Earth guy Arnie was, he said -- again, as if he knew him.
And from that day on, the tale of Arnie's mulligan at Augusta joined the arsenal of golf stories with which dad would regale his bar buddies at the American Legion. I'm proud to say, it even beat out Trevino's 1-iron.