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The Masters: Arnold Palmer still magnetized by Augusta's 'mystique'

By Lara Baldesarra and Piers Edwards, CNN
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Arnold Palmer at golf's Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1974 after a glittering career. Arnold Palmer at golf's Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 1974 after a glittering career.
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  • The Masters has been biggest boost to golf in United States, says Arnold Palmer
  • Six decades on from first playing at Augusta, 84-year-old is still in thrall to its "mystique"
  • Palmer is considered one of golf's all-time greats, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player
  • He won the Masters four times, level with Tiger Woods and two behind Nicklaus' all-time record

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(CNN) -- He won his first major at Augusta, played several rounds there with the President of the United States and racked up a record 50 consecutive Masters appearances -- but that's not what leaps to Arnold Palmer's mind when he reflects on the Georgia course.

He points instead to the way in which the Masters -- the only one of golf's four major tournaments to take place at the same course every year -- has spread the gospel of golf across Palmer's home nation.

"I think the Masters is something that has brought golf to the American people in a way that no other course and no other golf course could do," the 84-year-old told CNN.

"They rally around Augusta, and not just people in the southeastern states. They come from California, Washington, Wisconsin -- everywhere -- and that brings a certain mystique to the surface."

"Lloyd Mangrum once said to me: 'You know Arnie, I've won a few golf tournaments in my life but I'd give them all up for one Masters.' "

Unlike the late Mangrum, who won the U.S. Open in 1946 but twice finished runner-up at Augusta (where his lowest round of 64 was a tournament record for 46 years), Palmer had no such problems.

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In 1958, just three years after turning pro, he took possession of the green jacket -- the first of four Masters triumphs, and of seven majors in total.

Forty-six years later, Palmer -- then 74 -- received an unforgettable standing ovation as he approached the 18th green for the final competitive time after half a century of contesting the course.

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Like Tiger Woods, who misses his first Masters this week because of back surgery, it is the tournament in which Palmer competed the most -- so what made it so special?

"Well, of course, the golf course itself. And the club is such a great place. Everything!" opined one of the sport's all-time greats.

"The location, the geography of the club, the way the course rolled, the condition -- it was always in impeccable condition, the greens were always good, the fairways.

"The entire golf course was something that was a pleasure to be on and I just thoroughly enjoyed it."

The scene of his victories in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964, Augusta was also where Palmer played plenty of golf with Dwight Eisenhower, the U.S. President of 1953-1961.

Their first round came just hours after Palmer had won his first Masters in 1958.

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"I was on the course when (then Augusta chairman) Cliff Roberts, a very close friend of Ike's, came out and said the President had said he'd like to play the next day if I had time and would join him," Palmer recalls.

Read: Tee Party - Meet America's Golfing Presidents

It was the first of many rounds that the duo would enjoy together, with Palmer later describing the golf-obsessed Eisenhower as like a "second father."

No mention of Eisenhower and Augusta can of course be made without recalling the loblolly pine that became one of the most famous trees in golf history.

Standing a little over 200 yards from the tee, to the left of the fairway, the tree was one that the sitting U.S. President, an Augusta member, wanted removed because of his tendency to hit it so often.

At a governors meeting in 1956, the world's most powerful man proposed that the tree be cut down -- only for his friend Roberts, acting in his capacity as chairman, to rule him out of order and adjourn the meeting.

The pine was swiftly nicknamed the "Eisenhower Tree" and had stood proud and unbowed until suffering unsustainable damage during a major ice storm this February.

Read: Arnold Palmer Fast Facts

While Augusta officials described the tree's loss as "difficult news to accept" and have begun deliberations as to how best replace it, Palmer believes Eisenhower, who died in 1969 aged 78, would have had a different viewpoint.

"I'm sure it did not make him unhappy that it was gone," he laughs.

"But I think it was sort of a love-hate relationship. I think he got a kick out of complaining about the tree because it gave him a lot of trouble.

"On the other hand, it was part of Augusta and a very important part."

Palmer himself actually hit the famous tree en route to winning one of his Masters titles, but there may be no such trouble in future for one of his grandchildren.

Sam Saunders, now 26, turned pro three years ago and is fighting to return to his best form after losing his PGA Tour card after a disappointing 2013.

Appropriately enough, he made his first PGA appearance at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational -- tying 43rd but beating the likes of K.J. Choi, Padraig Harrington and Chad Campbell nonetheless.

"He's a young man and he's certainly getting some experience on playing professional golf," says his grandfather, who followed him around the course in a buggy.

"He's got a lot of challenges: a family he has to take care of, his game and winning. These are all major obstacles for him and things he must do to enjoy the game and his career as a professional golfer.

"He has the opportunity, but it's going to take a lot of hard work."

Something that Palmer, who ended a 59-year professional career at the age of 77, knows all about.

Read: Strong start for Masters champion Scott

Read: Mapping the Masters at Augusta National

Read: Why the man who designed Augusta died in poverty

Read: Woods to miss Masters

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