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Letter to a hero

Dear Mr. Palmer,

There's no way you remember me. Our encounters have been brief, professional and blurred amidst the swirl of Masters Week in Augusta.

The first came in 1999 at Borders bookstore as you greeted the soldiers of Arnie's Army that had lined up around the outside of the building, just to get you to sign a copy of your book, A Golfer's Life. You were there with your sweetheart, Winnie, and a small entourage of supporters.

A year later, we met again in the parking lot between the Augusta National Golf Club clubhouse and driving range. It was your first tournament without Winnie, who'd lost her battle with cancer months earlier. You spent a long time there, propped on the back of the white courtesy Cadillac as you handed out signed Callaway golf balls and talked about your wife, the fans and Augusta.

Then, last year, I followed the Army around the National, thrilled and honored to be covering one of your final Fridays (which bled into Saturday) from the fans' perspective.

And, when you sat in the Butler Cabin last Friday and wept as you talked about the fans of Augusta, I cried with you.

You took the time to thank those that made your first visits to The Masters possible and then helped foster your reign as a fan favorite: Bobby Jones, Clifford Roberts, Augusta. You praised your grandson, who took part in your final round as caddie. You smiled, laughed and carried yourself as you always have. You acted like you weren't Arnold Palmer, as the announcer said. You acted like one of us.

You made golf OK for Regular Joes and Average Andys. Long before Tiger Woods made golf cool, you made golf mainstream. And you made it possible for professionals to be less arrogant and aloof and more fire and fun. Less like Walter Hagen and more like, well, Arnold Palmer.

And then there's your love affair with Augusta. It's the place Fort Gordon soldiers followed you around, giving birth to the Army that has gathered millions of enlistees across continents. It's the place you played your way into America's landscape, swashbuckling through Amen Corner en route to four green jackets along the way. You won the last in 1964, nearly 10 years before I was born -- but I've never questioned what you mean to the tournament.

You've even become a member of the exclusive club and showed your love of Augusta by helping build the First Tee course and coming back to build part of a championship course in Columbia County.

Your mark on the game is unquestionable, on Augusta undeniable, and on the fans indubitable.

The golf world calls you simply, the King. My father calls you a legend and a true gentleman. I'll lean toward hero.

Thank you, Mr. Palmer, for everything you've done for golf, for Augusta, for the world.

Sincerely, a proud member of The Army,

Jason B. Smith

Web posted on Thursday, April 15, 2004

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