Augusta (United States) (AFP) - Arnold Palmer's legendary legacy can be felt this week at Augusta National, where the first Masters and first major tournament since the golf icon's death begins Thursday.
"His spirit is here. It always will be here," three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. "But to not actually have his physical presence is extremely awkward."
Palmer, who died last September at age 87 while awaiting heart surgery, was a seven-time major champion and four-time Masters winner who pioneered sports sponsorship and television deals.
Building a passionate following of devoted supporters known as "Arnie's Army," Palmer played for 50 years at the Masters and was among golf's top money spinners long after retirement from active tour events.
"It's a very awkward feeling to not have Arnold actually be here," Mickelson said. "You feel his presence -- his display, his showcase in the Champions Locker Room, his jacket, clubs, scorecards from past victories."
Mickelson prepared for the first Masters Champions Dinner in nearly 60 years since Palmer's first green jacket in 1958.
"I hope everybody tells a few Arnold Palmer stories because I feel like that would be appropriate as well as very entertaining and interesting to all of us," Mickelson said.
- Incredible stories -
Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters winner, was stunned to see Palmer come to Augusta National last year from Florida, when he sat and watched fellow honorary starters Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player handle the ceremonial duties.
"I thought it was incredible that he made the trip last year. I was taken back when I heard he was going to be there, because he wasn't in great health," Spieth said.
At Palmer's final Champions Dinner last year, Spieth sai he "did a lot of listening... there was some incredible stories told. I don't think guys would really appreciate me going into any more detail. But I thought that it was a tremendous honor to have Mr. Palmer there, and it was certainly emotional."
It figures to be very emotional for Nicklaus, whose all-time record 18 major wins include six at the Masters. He and Palmer were friendly rivals much of their career, the veteran Palmer and the "Golden Bear" in his cub days.
"Arnold took me under his wing when I was 20, 22 when I first started on the tour," recalled Nicklaus, now 77.
"Arnold was very good to me, in spite of having a gallery that wasn't so good to me. I may have had to fight Arnold's gallery but I never had to fight him.
"He was very kind to a young guy starting out. I appreciated it very much. We had a lot of great times together."
In addition to traveling together, Palmer helped Nicklaus learn to show respect to event backers and bolster his own legacy.
"I asked him, 'What do you do after a tournament?' He said, 'I always drop the sponsor a note.' I said, 'I think that's a good thing to do,'" Nicklaus said.
"I don't think I ever failed to drop a sponsor a note after a tournament, thanking the people, the volunteers and so forth.
"I've had a lot of sponsors come to me and say, 'Jack, every year I get a letter from you. I don't get one from anybody else.'
"And that came from Arnold."