By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Arnie's Army was out in force one more time on Thursday, storming the first tee at the U.S. Masters in a final salute to Arnold Palmer, their fallen leader.
There have been many tributes since the man known as "The King" passed away at the age of 87 last September but none could match the emotional connection Palmer had with Augusta National and the Masters - a tournament the swashbuckling golfer made important and won four times.
The year's first major got off to a sombre and poignant start as thousands of golf fans wearing commemorative buttons confirming their membership in Arnie's Army stood at attention during a moment of silence broken only by the sound of a chilly wind rustling through the trees.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne addressed the massive gallery, telling them it was a morning of unbearable sadness. Golf icons Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player then struck the opening ceremonial tee shots without their long time friend and rival at their side.
"Welcome to the 2017 Masters. It is a wonderful but, in one respect, a difficult day," said Payne. "For the first time in many many decades someone is obviously missing from the first tee.
"The almost unbearable sadness that we all feel by the passing of Arnold Palmer is only surpassed by the love and affection for him."
Before Nicklaus, a six-time Masters champion, hit his shot the Golden Bear looked to the heavens and waved his cap into the leaden skies in a clear salute to Palmer, whose Masters Green Jacket was draped over a white lawn chair to the side of the first tee.
After Player, who played in a record 52 Masters, sent his tee shot right Nicklaus stepped up and crushed his straight down the heart of the fairway, drawing a huge cheer signaling the 81st Masters was officially under way.
Later, Nicklaus and Palmer, both wearing Arnie's Army badges on the lapels of their Green Jackets, held court and paid homage to Palmer, a gentleman, fierce competitor and friend who made the Masters into one of sports great events.
"So Arnold came along (and) television was getting started. It was a time that the popularity of the game was really stimulated by Arnold," said Nicklaus.
"It was a time when the Masters was just sort of getting its feet wet with what's going on in the golfing world. Arnold was sort of the guy that made that popular and took the Masters from being a tournament to being one of the four biggest events in golf," Nicklaus went on.
"I think it was Arnold who took it to that. So my feeling was that, yes, the Masters made Arnold in many ways because of his wins but the other way around, I think Arnold made the
Masters. Arnold put the Masters on the map and with his rise and his popularity, the Masters rose the same," he said.
"I think they were both very good for each other."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)