Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 21, 2016

Even In His Winter Arnie Is Still The King

It is frequently said, and correctly so, that every weekly winner on the PGA Tour owes a portion of his prize check to Tiger Woods. At the peak of his dominance of the men’s game Woods brought legions of new fans to the sport. Every bit as important, he brought scores of corporate sponsors to golf, who lined up for the chance to attach their names to everything from hospitality tents to entire tournaments. For the mere mortals plying their trade at each weekly tour stop, it was a classic case of being one of the many boats bobbing ever higher in the harbor during a rising tide.

Yet younger fans may still not fully appreciate how for members of an older generation the impact of Tiger’s success was, as Yogi said, déjà vu all over again. Four decades before Woods turned professional and began his march to immortality, a young professional from western Pennsylvania was starting to win tournaments and attract notice from golf’s then decidedly narrow fan base.

For winning the 1955 Canadian Open, his first professional victory, Arnold Palmer pocketed $2,400. He won twice more in 1956 and four times one year later, and in doing so with his unique swing that often ended with the club windmilling above his head Palmer ended the era, if it ever truly existed, of a cookie cutter approach to hitting a golf ball.

In the spring of 1958 the 28-year old Palmer won the Masters, the first of his seven major titles. He triumphed at Augusta National over the stars of another time, Snead and Hogan, Nelson and Demaret. He also did so on television, as the Masters was then one of the few tournaments that was broadcast nationally.

Then came the 1960 U.S. Open, played at Cherry Hills Golf Club in Colorado. There Palmer staged the greatest comeback in the history of our national championship. He was tied for 15th after 54 holes, seven shots adrift of third round leader Mike Souchak. The final 36 holes of the Open were played on the same day, and during the break between rounds Palmer asked a journalist if the scribe thought he had a chance. “No” was the immediate answer, the writer telling Palmer that he was too far behind. In response Palmer told the journalist that he intended to drive the green on the short opening par-4.

Shortly thereafter he did just that, opening with a two putt birdie that led to a final round 65 and a victory by two strokes. The round cemented Palmer’s reputation as the most exciting player in the game, one whose go-for-broke style translated perfectly to television. With it the legend of the Palmer charge, fueled by shouts of encouragement from the growing throngs of “Arnie’s Army” in the galleries, was made complete.

Later that summer Palmer traveled to Scotland to compete in the Open Championship, ending years of neglect of the oldest major by American professionals; thus helping to restore its luster. He didn’t win that year, losing to Ken Nagle by a shot; but he won the next two Opens, reminding everyone years before Ballesteros and Langer, or Faldo and Norman, that golf is an international game.

In truth Palmer’s period of dominance was relatively brief. It’s easy to forget that as he was charging to victory at Cherry Hills, the eventual second place finisher at the 1960 U.S. Open was a young amateur named Jack Nicklaus. Soon enough Nicklaus turned pro and began his march toward a record number of major titles. He was joined in time by Gary Player and Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson, as the steadily growing game attracted a similarly expanding group of top competitors. Yet long after his days as the prohibitive favorite whenever he teed it up had past, Palmer retained his special hold on the galleries.

The King, as he has long been known, if 86 years old now and increasingly frail. There was concern as the PGA Tour made its annual stop at Bay Hill for Arnie’s tournament that he might not be able to participate in the closing ceremonies. Yet there he was on Sunday, sitting on the back deck of a house alongside the 18th fairway, surrounded by family and friends as fans ostensibly there to watch the golf tournament pressed up against the fence snapping photos and calling out their well wishes.

Palmer acknowledged the crowd with smiles and repeated thumbs-up before climbing into a golf cart for the short trip up Bay Hill’s closing hole. On the course Jason Day had begun the final round with the lead, but saw that disappear when his second to the par-5 6th hole splashed to a watery landing left of the green. That allowed Kevin Chappell, in the group just ahead, to claim a share of first. Henrik Stenson, playing with Chappell, soon made it a three-way tie. Then Day’s playing partner Troy Merritt opened the back nine with five consecutive birdies to join the party.

Even as Palmer was being ferried to the 18th green, the two final pairings were on the finishing holes. Stenson found water on the 16th, ending his chances. Chappell saw a one shot lead swing to a one shot deficit when he was unable to get up and down for par at the last even as Day was converting a birdie putt on the 17th green. Merritt’s hopes ended when his approach to the 18th splashed into the pond fronting the green.

That left Jason Day, clinging to a one shot lead but deep in the final hole’s right rough after an errant drive. Every player before him in that position had laid up, but with a style worthy of the tournament’s namesake the Australian world number two took a mighty slash with an iron. The ball safely cleared the water but sailed left into a bunker, leaving a lengthy up and down for the title. With a deft touch Day sailed the ball out of the sand and onto the putting surface, where it rolled just past the hole. With a steady stroke he converted the final putt to claim the reward for his bold play.

With the sun sliding to the west golf’s once and forever King was driven onto the 18th green to the loud affection of those in the stands. There he congratulated one of the game’s many young princes, a golfer who like every other member of the PGA Tour owes most of his wealth and fame to his natural talent and fierce determination. But even the world number two owes a debt to the Tour structure that Tiger Woods built; and all of them owe much to the strong foundation poured so many years ago by Arnold Palmer.

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