Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Yesterday I played, as part of a charity outing for the Hillside Children's Shelter in Rochester, N.Y., a 9-hole skins game against Joey Sindelar and Arnold Palmer. The last time I played with Arnie was 18 years ago in the Canadian PGA Championship at Woodmont, Ontario, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears whippersnapper, and I got him that day by shooting 71 to his 75. The scorecard hangs on the wall of my study, not because I beat him, but simply because his signature is on it.

Yesterday's experience was just as exciting for me, perhaps even more so, because now he knows who the hell I am. After Arnold's poor performance in the U.S. Senior Open, I felt that maybe Joey and I should be lenient on the old boy. We shouldn't have worried. We played $1,000 skins with carryovers, and Arnie, with the honor, hit two in a row into the hazard at the first hole, the only two bad shots he would hit all day. From then on, he hit it straighter than Joey and me, almost as long, closer to the flagstick, and made more putts. After eight holes that added up to eight skins. If I had tried any harder, I would have given myself a nosebleed.

We tied the last hole and went to a greenside bunker for a playoff, with closest to the hole winning the final skin. Joey went first and hit a beauty to about 2 1/2 feet, which was no mean feat, for it was a fast, downhill 25-yarder. I went second and hit about 8 feet past. Arnold, who by this stage was in full gloat, winked at us both as he walked into the bunker. The two men who had felt sorry for him on the first tee were now heckling the King. In front of an adoring crowd of about 2,000, he played a perfect splash shot that landed about 15 feet short of the hole, but gently, and drifted agonizingly down the slope, coming to rest about a foot right of the cup. Arnie's army erupted in the usual fashion, but this time with a couple of new recruits -- Joey and I, even though we had just had our butts kicked by a man two months shy of his 70th birthday.

For any great player, there is an adjective that fits. Tiger Woods is awesome, Seve Ballesteros is dashing, Gary Player is tenacious. Arnold Palmer is beautiful, and he always has been. From the ultimate macho, flat-bellied lean and hungry winning machine of the '50s and '60s to his tears on the Swilken bridge in the '90s, he is the reason they are playing for so much money today, and the reason that women love golf. He is the one and only King, and I am glad that he wears softspikes, because otherwise I would need stitches in the cheeks of my 40-year-old backside today.

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