Can a 43-year-old millionaire, who has been golf's most dazzling superstar, still find fun and fulfillment as an also-ran on the tour?
"I think I can still win out there, and I'm not just whistling past the churchyard. I am 43 and I didn't win a tournament in 1972, but I don't think those two factors tie together as neatly as that.
"Now, understand, I realized that a fellow shouldn't expect to do the same things at 43 that he did at, say, 33. But I honestly believe that my problems last year stemmed from a larger combination of things.
"For one, I had trouble with my vision. True, that's a result of the aging process, but in my case it's a little different. Some people become far-sighted as they grow older that is, unable to clearly see things up close, like the print in a newspaper. And the old gag is that a lot of them don't get glasses until their arms finally are not long enough to extend the paper to the right distance. My problem happens to be near-sightedness inability to see distance. And this is pretty tough on a golfer.
"To me, wearing glasses is no pleasure, but once I conceded that I simply couldn't properly judge distance without them, I began to experiment. I tried glasses and found them uncomfortable. I switched to contact lenses and they also bothered me. In the meantime, I was playing tournaments without either. At Greensboro in April, I decided to wear the contact lenses and I finally got a couple of scores. In fact, I had a two-shot lead going into the final round, but I messed up a 3-wood for a triple bogey six and lost out by a stroke.
The near-miss at Greensboro did not end the experiment, however. Arnie continued to rotate between the glasses and the contacts except for the U.S. Open. He felt he knew the Pebble Beach layout so well that he could go at it alone. His second-round of 68 put him in the thick of the fight, but a closing 76 left him in third place.
Toward the end of the schedule, Arnie was beginning to favor the glasses regularly. He wears an oversized frame with wire rims, and the contemporary design does little to detract from his attractive athletic image. Intimates acknowledge, however, that vanity very likely was a key factor in his early reluctance to wear glasses in public.
"I think I'm getting used to them now," he concedes. "They don't seem to disturb my concentration as they once did, and I'm beginning to have more confidence in what I see. And this has even helped my putting although it surely didn't seem that way in Suhara or in the Disney. I needed a par-four at the final hole to tie in Suhara, but I took three from the edge of the green and lost by a shot. In the Disney I three-putted four times over the last seven holes and missed the cut."
While 1972 was the first time Palmer was completely blanked in his 18 years on the tour, he has suffered other droughts in recent times. He went from September, 1968 until November, 1969 without a victory, but then he won two in a row the Heritage and the Danny Thomas-Diplomat before the season ended. In 1970, he failed to register an individual win, although he paired with Jack Nicklaus for the PGA Team Championship. But then he came back with four big ones in 1971 and banked $209,603 his highest single season haul.
With '72 a washout, his winless stretch reached 17 months through last December. Other negative notations on the '72 ledger included failing to make the cut three times, after having been a survivor for 82 consecutive tournaments. His earnings of $84,181 was only the second time in 10 years that he was under $100,000. His last miss was in '65.
"Aside from trying to see what I was doing, and just guessing too often, part of my problem last year was time. I just never seemed to have enough time to work on my game, and that's bad. Competition on the tour is so tough these days that you can't hope to do much out there unless you have all the parts working. But between my business commitments which pile up pretty high at time and trying to spend some time with Winnie and our daughters, well, my schedule gets rather hectic. I realize now, though, that I have to practice more if I want to get it going again.