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?
Arnold Palmer was being asked to take stock of Arnold Palmer at a significant signpost — his first winless year on the PGA tour. Typically, he didn’t flinch.
“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.
“Actually, I haven’t had any trouble hitting the ball, although I haven’t been as consistent as I’d like to be. My father [Milfred ‘Deke’ Palmer, long-time pro at the Latrobe CC, who taught Arnie to play. — Ed.] blames my short game and says it isn’t as sharp. I think it’s been the putter — but I guess I’ve been saying that for a long time now.
Palmer watchers take Arnie’s putting complaints with a grain of salt. He moaned about his stroke even during his peak years, when he canned them from everywhere and was generally regarded as one of the great all-time putters.
“I’ve thought about it a good bit, and I’ve decided that I don’t have the ‘yips’ as some people have suspected. As I said, some of it can be traced to my vision problems, and I’m beginning to get a better feeling on the greens now. Oh, I’ve fooled around with my stance and stroke, and I’ve changed blades a good bit, but that’s not new for me. What I’ve been working on lately is getting back to the same movement I had for so long. I think I’m making progress.”
Some observers thought Arnie was starting to show a trace of middle-age spread last year, and that this might be contributing to his problems.
“I’m a little bit heavier now, but not that much. I like to be on the lower side of 180, but more recently I’ve moved to the plus side. I try to watch my weight. In fact, I started playing tennis this year to work a little more exercise into my schedule. Gee, I guess that’s heresy to mention tennis, isn’t it? I play in fits and starts but I enjoy it. Sometimes I might play for four or five hours at one clip down at Bay Hill [Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla. — Ed.] and then I won’t get on the courts again for a couple of weeks.
“I really don’t have any physical problems, except an occasional sore muscle. The difference now is that the soreness might hang on longer. When you’re younger, you hardly notice those things. Inasmuch as this will be my 19th year on the tour, I think I’ve gotten some good mileage out of these bones.
“I can remember back to my early tour days when some fellows didn’t think I’d last too long. Nothing physical — they said it was my swing. Some said it was too much of a ‘muscle swing’ to stand the test of time. One fellow predicted I wouldn’t get past 30 out there. Well, it’s certainly a lot easier if you have a swing like Sam Snead’s, but how many players do? Neither Nicklaus or Trevino have the fluid, classic swing. Hogan didn’t, either. None of them has suffered. It’s strictly a matter of efficiency — getting the maximum out of what you have.
“I’m not doing anything different out there now — other than not winning. I suppose I should be playing it safer at this stage of the game, since I don’t think I’m as sharp getting out of trouble now…I take more bogeys than I should. But this is the way I learned to play and I’ve enjoyed it this way. I’m not about to change it all now.
“I suppose one of these days I’ll have to start thinking about that time when I drop out as a tour regular. But I haven’t reached that point yet. I still have a few things I want to do out there, like winning the PGA Championship and another Open or Masters…a few more events on the tour. And I honestly think I can pull it off. I played some of the best golf on my life in 1971, when I was nearing 42. A few putts in the right places last year would have made a big difference.”
Since Palmer’s business interests have grown to conglamerate proportion in recent years, there are those who feel that Arnie is trapped between the desire to see his numerous investments prosper and the need to play and win the way Arnold Palmer should. The question is, can he do both — even with the help of his jet to get him places in a hurry, and a large staff to handle the day-to-day details?
“I’m trying to spread out my business schedule so it doesn’t pile up too much during my tournament commitments. It’s a little complex because as time wears on it will be important that I get more and more involved in these businesses. And I look forward to that, too.
“As far as my 1973 playing schedule goes, I’m going to do it a little differently this time. I won’t play until I’m satisfied my game is good enough. That may cause me to miss a few events, but that’s better than going out there and building up frustration. And, of course, in ’73 I’m going to work a little harder on my game, too.
“I feel good about it — especially when I hear some of those people out there in the gallery. Those wonderful people…they’re the ones who keep pushing on. They walk with me on good days and on bad days, and they’re always urging me on. They send me nice encouraging letters, playing tips, good luck charms, and all that. Why, I guess if I’d never won a purse out there I’d still have to consider myself a rich man just to have them on my side.”
Since Arnie has been so totally immersed in golf over a long period, some have wondered whether he’d be content at that day down the road to be a business man involved with his golf equipment company, putting courses, golf schools, etc. Wouldn’t he be better suited as a golf commentator on TV or as the Commissioner of Golf, as some have speculated?
“I don’t see myself as a full-time broadcaster. I’ve done some of it and I enjoy it, but I don’t think I should try to make a career out of it. As far as the job of Commissioner goes, I think Joe Dey’s done a good job and I hope he stays around. But in the years ahead if they thought I might help the game…well, I’d have to think about that. I might be interested.”
And how about playing senior golf?
“Oh, come on now, aren’t you pushing me down the road a little fast?”