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Arnold Palmer’s death rekindles memories of Boise Open appearance

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer signs a Wheaties cereal box as he is surrounded by fans after the Coors Light Skins for College Golf game at Boise’s Hillcrest Country Club on Monday. Palmer, who turned 71the day before, played along with Buy.com Tour player Mark Hensby and PGA Tour professionals John Cook and Notah Begay III.
Golfing legend Arnold Palmer signs a Wheaties cereal box as he is surrounded by fans after the Coors Light Skins for College Golf game at Boise’s Hillcrest Country Club on Monday. Palmer, who turned 71the day before, played along with Buy.com Tour player Mark Hensby and PGA Tour professionals John Cook and Notah Begay III.

Scott Masingill was 50 years old when Arnold Palmer turned him into a star-struck kid.

Masingill had qualified for an event on the senior tour. At the driving range, he picked a spot next to Palmer to hit some balls hoping to get a photo of himself with “The King” in the background.

“I take this divot and it stays on the club and hits him right in the chest, right in the middle of this pink shirt,” Masingill, of Payette, said Sunday evening. “I must have had the most shocked look on my face. I say, ‘I am so sorry.’ He says: ‘That’s OK. Just aim a little farther right.’ ”

Anecdotes like that are common throughout the golf world, where Palmer was revered for his commitment to growing the game through his interactions with fans, sponsors and competitors.

Palmer, the four-time Masters champion, died Sunday at 87 years old.

“He’s the most important guy in every professional golfer’s life,” said Jeff Sanders, the executive director of the Albertsons Boise Open and a former PGA Tour player. “That’s just the bottom line. He’s the guy, and today’s a very sad day. He’s the role model for every golfer that’s ever played the game of golf. If you can be like Mr. Palmer, then you’ll be OK.”

Palmer’s grace, wit and — somewhat unexpectedly — golf skills were on full display on Sept. 11, 2000, at Hillcrest Country Club. The day after his 71st birthday, Palmer played in a nine-hole exhibition that once served as a prelude to the Boise Open.

He played with three younger tour pros and shot 1-under 34 on the tournament back nine of Hillcrest, including a birdie on his first hole. He had the best score of the group.

His appearance in Boise 16 years ago is still one of the all-time highlights of my life,” Sanders said. “... We gave him a birthday cake on the 18th green.”

Palmer’s Boise appearance was nearly a quarter-century in the making.

Sanders played 18 holes with Palmer at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club in 1976. Palmer agreed to play with the top men’s and women’s players on the University of Oregon golf teams to raise money for the program.

At the post-round banquet, Palmer donated half of his appearance fee back to the golf programs, Sanders said.

“There was nobody like him,” Sanders said. “A complete gentleman. First-class guy. And he engaged with fans like no other.”

Sanders played with Palmer again a few years later. They both showed up early for a practice round at Waialae Country Club for the PGA Tour’s annual event on Oahu. They played nine holes as a twosome and reminisced about that round in Eugene.

Sanders continued to cross paths with Palmer during his career on the business side of golf. Sanders worked for the Fred Meyer Challenge in Portland, where Palmer played. And he has given sponsor’s exemptions to Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, in recent years.

Sanders marveled at Palmer’s approach to events like those exhibitions in Eugene and Boise.

“He always did them gladly and happily,” Sanders said, “and when he got there it was like you were walking alongside the president of the United States. He made you feel super special. He had such charm and such class and he made everybody feel special. He would sign the autographs and he would never turn one down. ... I’m just happy that somehow, someway, I was able to have a few moments with the guy because growing up he was always my idol.”

Masingill’s encounters with Palmer were more brief. But even before they met, Palmer “had a huge effect on my life,” Masingill said. “I used to watch him all the time.”

Masingill played in the 1981 U.S. Open as an amateur. The event was staged in Pennsylvania, Palmer’s home state.

Palmer teed off in a practice round in the group behind Masingill. He signed so many autographs between holes, Masingill said, that Palmer finished the round about five groups back.

“The energy of the crowd was unbelievable,” Masingill said. “I was standing on the 17th tee and there was kind of a backup and in front of me was (Jack) Nicklaus, (Tom) Watson, Lanny Wadkins and Seve Ballesteros. Somebody says, ‘Arnie’s on 14.’ The entire crowd turned their back on these four guys hitting shots to look two fairways over to see Palmer.”

Palmer still was making occasional appearances on the senior tour in 2001, when Masingill turned pro to try to play his way onto that circuit. He got into The Transamerica in Napa, Calif., through a Monday qualifier. It was his debut on the senior tour.

Before the errant divot on the driving range, Masingill encountered Palmer.

“He basically just said, ‘Who are you?’ ” Masingill said. “... He knew that I must have Monday-qualified. He said: ‘Congratulations. That’s really hard to do. It takes a lot of courage to Monday-qualify. ... Have fun this week.’ ”

Masingill experienced a few moments like that with Palmer during his career.

“It’s amazing,” Masingill said. “He would always stop and give you that 15 or 20 seconds, and you felt like you were the only person in his world, even though it was kind of swirling around him.”

• • • 

I didn’t reach Boise teaching pro Jeff Thomsen until Monday. He played on the PGA Tour from 1979 to 1982 and has participated in senior majors as a club pro. Here are a few thoughts from him:

Thomsen played a practice round with Palmer at the 2004 Senior PGA Championship. He wrote letters to Palmer and Jack Nicklaus and was able to play separate practice rounds with both.

Thomsen’s practice round with Palmer included Doug Sanders and another club pro.

“We just talked about golf for 18 holes,” said Thomsen, who teaches at Boise Ranch Golf Course. “I asked (Palmer) about some of the events that I knew about. He said, ‘Here’s what happened.’ It’s always fun to hear the story from someone who was involved with it. ... He really liked being around people and he always made you feel welcome, no matter who you were.”

Thomsen also has stopped by Bay Hill Golf Club in Florida, where Palmer maintained an office. He got to talk golf with him there, too.

“I asked him, ‘Why did you play with somewhat of an abandonment to the risk?’ ” Thomsen said. “He said, ‘I found out that was the only way I could win.’ ... He was similar to Seve Ballesteros in regard that bad shots didn’t affect him. He didn’t start to wonder about his swing. He just went and found the ball and hit it again.”

At his first PGA Tour event, Thomsen arrived at the driving range to find Palmer and Nicklaus hitting balls. If he’d asked them to play a practice round with him, they probably would have, he said.

“I was too green, too scared, to introduce myself,” he said. “... I wish I could do that one over.”

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