AUGUSTA, Ga. — Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne paid tribute to the late Arnold Palmer in his annual state of the tournament news conference Wednesday, describing the four-time champion here as golf’s “preeminent hero, a man whose greatness as a player and a champion were exceeded only by his qualities as a man.”
The club will honor Palmer’s memory this week by providing everyone who walks through the gates for Thursday’s first round with a special commemorative badge. Payne also announced Augusta National has made a “significant” but undisclosed donation to the Arnold Palmer Charitable Foundation.
Palmer, whose 62 career tournament titles included four at the Masters, died Sept. 25 at 87.
Palmer had served in recent years as one of the tournament’s honorary starters, along with his friends, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who will continue the tradition Thursday morning. Payne said he also will speak about Palmer on the first tee before Nicklaus and Player hit their ceremonial opening drives.
“I think tomorrow will no doubt be an emotional goodbye,” Payne said. “But at the same time, an even more powerful thank you to the man we dearly love.”
Defending champion Danny Willett added a touch of his home country cuisine to the menu of the annual Masters champions dinner Tuesday night.
Willett, from the Yorkshire region of England, served up cottage pie filled with ground beef, onions, carrots and cheese, served with Henderson relish, followed by roast beef and classic Yorkshire pudding with gravy trimmings. The dessert was an apple crumble.
“It’s nothing really off the wall,” Willett said earlier in the day. “It would have been what most people would have thought, if they were to come to Britain and sat in a pub on Sunday and have their dinner … Hopefully, the guys will eat what we’re serving and it’s not too different.”
Anyone at the dinner who wanted to Brexit from the main course was welcome to change to steak and potatoes, as usual. And the beverage of choice to toast Palmer’s memory: an Arnold Palmer, of course, a combination of ice tea and lemonade, perhaps even mixed with an adult beverage.
Severe thunderstorms in the forecast showed up at Augusta National on Wednesday, as predicted, causing a halt to the practice rounds and the annual Par 3 contest at 12:30 p.m.
There was an earlier stoppage and the course was evacuated at about 10:30 a.m. Play resumed about an hour later, only to have the grounds cleared again for good when a second round of storms was expected to pummel the course.
Payne said before the storm that the course had “the best turf conditions ever” after a mild winter and a dense overseeding that left the venue “looking and playing magnificently.
“Regrettably,” Payne added, “the same weather that propelled our course and greens to near-perfect condition caused our normally spectacular azaleas and other flowers to bloom three weeks early. That premature boom, combined with recent consecutive hard freezes, has diminished our otherwise beautiful and traditional coloring. So this year, we’ve decided that our color of choice is green.”
Fans did get to see a bit of the Par 3 event before play was stopped for the day. Canadian Mike Weir and American Brendan Steele were tied for the lead at that point at 3 under par. Weir played seven holes, Steele only five. Berhard Langer was a shot back at 2 under, with birdies on his first two holes before play was canceled for the day. No winner was declared.
Billy Hurley III, a native of Leesburg, Va., who now lives in Annapolis, is making his first appearance in the Masters at age 34. Hurley graduated from the Naval Academy in 2004 and served five years in the Navy from 2004 to 2009.
He qualified to play this week by winning the Quicken Loans event last summer at Congressional, considered by many as one of the PGA Tour’s more remarkable stories of the 2016 season. He’s the first Naval Academy graduate to earn a PGA Tour playing card and also the first from his school to play in the Masters. He’s tweeting daily from the course and posting his comments on his website, as well.
“Masters Tuesday, I did something I’ve never done before in my life. I went out and walked the golf course as a spectator,” he wrote. Hurley and his wife Heather “walked around for 45 minutes or so, hung out and enjoyed the grounds of Augusta National. Afterwards, I practiced putting for a good while and then played nine holes with Roberto Castro. The course was looking really good. Hopefully, the weather on Wednesday won’t mess it up too much.”