AP Golf Writer
Arnold Palmer reached for a black pen and a blank piece of paper, and for a moment, he went back in time to the first grade.
"My first year in grade school, my teacher was a lady by the name of Rita Taylor," Palmer said. "The blackboard around the room had 'The Palmer Method of Writing,' and that was the system with which we were taught to write."
The King didn't invent the popular method of teaching cursive. Among athletes, he perfected it.
Pen in hand, his right arm moved in a slow, circular motion for several seconds, as if rehearsing. Then, he started writing what has become one of the most famous autographs in sports. Even at 83, Palmer makes sure every fan can read his name. And like so many other aspects of his golfing career, his influence spans generations.
"I've always heard you need to make it legible, and I try to do that," Tim Clark said as he signed for fans behind the railing at Doral this spring. He used lower case for his entire name, and it was as clear as can be.
Where did he hear this advice? "Arnold Palmer," he said.
Tiger Woods has a distinctive style with his autograph, perhaps not as legible as Palmer's, but easily recognizable. He signs his name with the same penmanship he would use to write a letter, and if you pay close attention, there is this idiosyncrasy in the way he does it -- he always dots the "i'' in his name.
"I do it every time," Woods said. "Sometimes I'll hit the 'W' and sometimes I hit the 'T' because of the speed I'm being pushed along or people moving around."
The Masters isn't the best place for fans to collect autographs. Augusta National has a strict policy of limiting requests to a designated area near the practice range and during the Par 3 Tournament. There are no autographs allowed on the golf course. A prized possession, however, is a yellow Masters flag signed by players.
The question, as with any other golf memorabilia, is whether anyone can read the names. The example set by the likes of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and so many others has not carried over to this generation.
Look at any flag filled with player autographs and try to figure out who they are. Some players sign. Most just scribble.
"I've never enjoyed trying to figure out who's who," Phil Mickelson said. "When you play on a Ryder Cup team and a name is missing, and I can't figure out any of them that are actually on the flag, there's no way to find out who's missing. That's always frustrating. It's just showing respect, whether it's for fans or whoever you're signing for."
Padraig Harrington and Honda Classic winner Michael Thompson figured this out.
For more than a decade, Harrington's signature looked like it belonged on a doctor's prescription. To say it was illegible would be a compliment. The "P'' and the "H'' could barely be detected. Otherwise, it looked like the ink stamp from a chicken claw.
And then he won the British Open at Carnoustie.
"Up to that, I always signed my name as I would sign a check," Harrington said. "My caddie gave me a lecture after I won the Open. He said if he was a little kid and asked me for my autograph, and that's what he got, he'd be very disappointed."
The Irishman took that to heart. He now signs his full name, a style similar to Palmer.
"If you're going to sign it, you'd be better off signing less and signing it properly," Harrington said. "I do notice the others (that can't be recognized). And I think it says a lot about the person."
Zach Johnson signs with a "Z'' and a line through it. He won't win a penmanship contest, but there is no question whose name is on the flag. He is happy with his effort and believes it is legible. And then he saw another name on the flag.
"Not as legible as that -- oh, wow," he said.
Above where he signed was the name of Michael Thompson, nearly all 15 letters in the name as clear as can be. Much like Harrington, Thompson took the advice of his caddie, Matt Bednarski, about a month after they began working together in 2011.
Previously, it looked like an EKG reading -- a mostly flat line except for two spikes (the "M'' and the "T'') and a short drop for the "p."