Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2016

A Finish Worthy Of The King

As Rory McIlroy strode down what was for one week East Lake Golf Club’s 16th fairway on Sunday afternoon, he was three strokes out of the lead at the Tour Championship. With little more than two holes to play, he appeared to have virtually no chance of winning the PGA Tour’s season-ending tournament, much less the $10 million bonus that awaited the winner of the four-tournament FedEx Cup playoffs.

The PGA Tour flipped the two nines at East Lake this year, hoping to produce a setup that might result in a more exciting finish than that provided by the course’s normal finish of a par-3 18th hole. The wish for drama began to materialize when McIlroy lofted a short iron from the first cut of rough, 138 yards away from and below the hole. His Nike golf ball landed a few feet left of the pin, spun once, then rolled dead right and into the cup for an eagle two. With one perfect swing, and a generous helping of good fortune, McIlroy had cut his three stroke deficit to one.

Two holes later he birdied the par-5 that would normally play as the 9th hole, and when Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell could make no better than par at the last, McIlroy had barged his way into a three-way sudden death playoff. Chappell fell on the first playoff hole, but McIlroy and Moore played on until the world number three finally consummated his Sunday charge by rolling in a twelve foot birdie putt on the fourth hole of the playoff, by chance once again his lucky 16th.

Sunday’s sprint up the leader board by McIlroy became especially timely shortly after that final putt dropped, when word came that Arnold Palmer, the golfer who seemingly invented the final round charge, had passed away at the age of 87. To many current fans Palmer was the kindly grandfather figure watching the modern game from behind the ropes. To them his on-course exploits are known only through grainy black and white videos. But to golf fans of a certain age, who enlisted in Arnie’s Army in their youth and never mustered out, the King will always be the player who more than anyone turned golf from a game reserved for the elite country club set into one followed, and played, by the masses.

The 1954 U.S. Amateur champion, Palmer’s first professional victory came a year later at the Canadian Open. He won his first major at the 1958 Masters, when he rallied from three shots behind at the halfway point. In the paper’s first extended coverage of the then 28-year old, a New York Times “Man in the News” column described him as having “nerves of steel.”

Two years later, Palmer took the Masters again by rolling in birdie putts on both of the last two holes. Two months after that he won the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills with a final round 65. In those days the final two rounds of our national championship were both played on Saturday. While having lunch in the locker room after completing his third round, Palmer saw golf writer Bob Drum. Seven shots adrift of leader Mike Souchak, Palmer asked Drum what would happen if he shot 65 in the afternoon. The journalist famously and wrongly replied “For you, nothing. You’re too far behind.” Palmer then drove the first green, a downhill par-4, setting up a two putt birdie on his way to a front nine score of 30. Palmer won that day by two shots over a pudgy amateur named Jack Nicklaus. Between the Masters and the U.S. Open, in 1960 the Palmer charge was born.

All of this was happening at the same time that golf tournaments were beginning to show up on television screens on weekend afternoons. Palmer was a magnetic presence, with his go for broke style and constant interaction with fans. The Q Rating measure of celebrity appeal wasn’t invented until a few years later, but Palmer’s was certainly off the charts.

He traveled to Scotland in 1960 to play the Open Championship following his victories at the Masters and U.S. Open. While he came up one shot short that year, he won the next two Opens, and his willingness to compete in a tournament that many American pros had regularly skipped reestablished the importance of golf’s oldest major.

As the first client of Mark McCormack’s International Management Group, Palmer was instrumental in creating the concept of sports agency, allowing athletes to turn their fame into endorsement riches. His avid participation in what is now known as the Champions Tour when it began in 1980 helped establish the senior tour as a successful source of entertainment for fans and continued competition, and paychecks, for players over the age of fifty. Against the advice of his financial advisers, he invested in a fledgling cable network called the Golf Channel, helping what is now a major source of golf coverage on television get its start.

The King won at least one PGA Tour event every year from 1955 to 1971. His last win on the regular tour came at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, when he rammed home a long distance birdie putt on the final hole. While he later added ten Champions Tour victories, his period of dominance was relatively brief. From 1960 through 1963 Palmer won twenty-nine times, including five of his seven majors. But that was precisely the time that golf was finding its way into living rooms on weekend afternoons, and so he became a hero to millions of fans.

They stayed loyal, indeed if anything became more so, when he failed. At the 1961 Los Angeles Open he hit four balls out-of-bounds on the par-5 9th hole, eventually signing for a twelve. At the 1966 U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, he held a seven shot lead with nine to play before collapsing. The calamities only proved Palmer’s humanity to his fans, as did his gnawing failure to complete the career Grand Slam by winning the PGA Championship.

When the sad news came Sunday evening, FedEx Cup winner McIlroy said “Even though he wasn’t the most successful golfer of all time, he’s definitely the one who will leave the lasting legacy. I think of all sports over the past century I’m not sure if anyone’s going to leave a legacy like Arnold Palmer.”

It is a legacy of almost single-handedly popularizing a sport by seizing on the then-new medium of televised tournaments and combining a dashing and daring style on the course with an avuncular everyman persona off it. Now Arnold Palmer is gone, leaving the loyal soldiers in Arnie’s Army with their memories.  But they also have the certain knowledge that while each generation of golfers will produce transcendent players like McIlroy; as even he acknowledged, there will never be another King.

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