Palmer Still Draws A Crowd
By Ken Klavon, USGA
Town and Country, Mo. – He is far removed from the glory days when his skills were sharp and his vitality measured in infinite quantities.
He is more of a performer than a contender these days, resplendent with his fans the way the sun splashes off chrome-rimmed wheels. He is, for a golfer, illuminating and larger-than-life.
Now, at age 74, Arnold Palmer doesn't move as gracefully as he once did. Nor is he considered a threat to win, even though the competitive voice in him says he can do it. Yet he somehow manages to maintain a firm grip on the game that has defined his existence.
Palmer, celebrating the 50th anniversary of his U.S. Amateur victory in
|Arnold Palmer said the U.S. Amateur win in 1954 was one of the most important victories in his career that he cherishes more and more. (John Mummert/USGA)
1954 to which he said he feels "old," has nearly come full circle in his career. He's played with some of the best ever in the sport, from Ben Hogan to Cary Middlecoff to Lloyd Mangrum to Sam Snead to Jack Nicklaus.
"I think winning the Amateur was certainly one of the most important wins that I ever had in golf," said Palmer. "And certainly as the years go by, that becomes more and more important to me."
Palmer hasn't made a Senior Open cut since 1998, nor has he won a Champions Tour event since 1988. So what.
These days he gets tired, physically and mentally, more easily than he used to. Things change, like not being able to get the club through the ball the way he wants to. But the determination is still there.
"I'll go home and pick up a golf club and get the same enthusiasm I had at 8 o'clock this morning," said Palmer. "The game is just too good and too big, and it's fun for me."
Someone asked him about Jack Nicklaus taking a pass this year because his game hasn't been up to snuff. Palmer said he respects Nicklaus' decision and will never criticize him for his beliefs.
"Arnie, as far as he's concerned, he's here because he wants to be," said Palmer.
"Somewhere in the back of my head I'm still stupid enough to think that I can win a golf tournament."
Last year after the third round at Inverness, Bruce Lietzke casually mentioned that if he'd go on to win, he most likely would not try to defend. Lietzke had learned that the championship, normally scheduled for the latter part of June, was being moved this year to late July. It caused a conflict because Lietzke had already promised his daughter he'd take her on a cruise this week.
Lietzke backpedaled a bit when he did win, saying he'd try to work something out. And he did.
"We substituted two vacations for one," said Lietzke.
In March, Lietzke took the family on the cruise, and for the last two weeks, he's been vacationing with close friend Bill Rogers in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands.
Making It Back
When doctors noticed a cancerous growth on Hubert Green's left tonsil that had also affected the back of his tongue in May of 2003, the wiry 1977 U.S. Open champion had a decision to make. Undergo grueling chemotherapy treatments or opt for alternative methods? As far as Green was concerned, it was a no-brainer.
At the conclusion of last year's Senior Open, where he posted a tie for 30th, a glum Green announced that he was going forward with radiation and chemotherapy sessions at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Fla. Six sessions erased 30 pounds off his already-thin frame, but Green got the word that he was in remission.
On Tuesday, the 57-year-old Green addressed other players who were commiserating with him on the practice range. This season has been an admitted struggle as he has finished no higher than 38th in the eight events he's started. Strength has been an issue. The weight has come back slowly.
"I'm weak," said Green. "I can't compete anywhere right now. I wish I could compete on this golf course. If you hit the ball 280 [yards] it's perfect. If you go hit it 220, like I hit it, you're dead meat."
Coming off what he called a "freaky" moment at the British Senior Open, Graham Marsh was still as surprised as anyone that he became the first player on the four major professional tours to ace the same hole twice in a tournament.
The 1997 Senior Open champion had aced the 170-yard 11th hole in the first and third rounds using a 9- and 8-iron, respectively. But what many may not know is that he almost did it a third time, in the final round on Sunday. With the wind howling, Marsh grabbed a 5-iron and watched the ball come within inches of the hole.
"What are the odds?" said Marsh on Tuesday. "I thought it was fantastic."
Marsh estimated he's had "something around 12 or 13" holes-in-one in his career.
So, what to do for an encore at Bellerive Country Club this week? Marsh couldn't even imagine.
"Mate, that would be something. I might not get another one in my lifetime," he said.
Nearly 30 years later, three players in the field are back together again. Bill Kirkendall, Gary Ostrega and D.A. Weibring all played on the 1975 Illinois State golf team and they're using the Senior Open as a reunion of sorts.
Kirkendall and Ostrega got in through sectional qualifying; Weibring was exempt by virtue of his standing on the Champions Tour money list.
When Kirkendall, who qualified at Rivermont Golf and Country Club in Atlanta, saw that the other two were in, he couldn't think straight.
"I was shocked," said Kirkendall. "I was on the USGA Web site and when I saw Gary and I had made it, and D.A. had made it, I just didn't know what to say."
After graduation, Ostrega and Weibring pursued life on the professional golf ranks while Kirkendall went into business.
A president for a prominent golf shoe company, the 50-year-old Kirkendall decided in February to turn pro. Through the years the three have stayed in contact, Kirkendall and Weibring more closely.
"For all of us to be here in the Senior Open …," said a smiling Kirkendall, his voice trailing off.
Frank Conner arrived at Bellerive C.C. just in time for practice rounds. Conner, an alternate, got the call in San Antonio to pack his things and head to St. Louis. That's because John Schroeder withdrew a couple days ago.
"It's not fun being an alternate," said Conner.
Conner, a former professional tennis player, is one of two people to lay claim of having played in golf and tennis' version of the U.S. Open. The other? Ellsworth Vines, who played in the tennis U.S. Open in 1932 and four golf Opens from 1946-49.
Story written by Ken Klavon, USGA Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.