Palmer's hunger undiminished

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The Independent Online
If you hang around sport long enough it gets to be like that scene in Goodbye Mr Chips when the past unfolds as a roll call in the ageing schoolmaster's mind. Inevitably, the parade of yesterday's heroes grows longer.

To be able to say that we saw Don Bradman bat, Stanley Matthews on the wing, Sugar Ray Robinson throw a hook, Gordon Richards ride and Ben Hogan drive allows some of us older guys to feel briefly superior, but the imminent inclusion of Arnold Palmer has a particular emotional effect.

At St Andrews today Palmer, 65, tees off in his last Open Championship. Students of nostalgia are sure to find this instructive. For all his toughness as a competitor Palmer, as he showed recently when making a farewell appearance in the US Open, is respectfully sentimental, so we can expect a run on the Kleenex.

The fact is, of course, the good things you say about Palmer you can say again and again. Of the many pleasures in sport, none has been greater personally than to observe his presence on the golf course.

To say merely that Palmer is one of the greatest golfers in history is to underplay his influence on the game both as a spectator sport and a profession. But for the impetus he provided along with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the Sixties, it is unlikely that the present crop of leading players would be able to calculate their worth in multiples of seven figures. Neither is it an exaggeration to suggest that the Open Championship was revived by Palmer's interest.

On his first appearance, Palmer arrived at St Andrews in 1960 with a Grand Slam in his sights and lost by a stroke to Kel Nagle, of Australia. He returned to win at Birkdale in 1961 and successfully defended the championship at Troon a year later.

"When I was here [St Andrews] in 1960 I didn't feel any different than I do now," Palmer said yesterday.

"My reason for coming was that I felt a career in golf could not be fulfilled without participating in the Open, and that if I were fortunate enough to win I would be in a position to be recognised throughout the world."

This week at the Royal and Ancient dinner for past champions, Palmer spoke about his reverence for the Open and what it has meant to him for 35 years. "It hardly seems that long," he said.

Later, for a few moments, he fell into conversation with Seve Ballesteros, who is presently in the doldrums. In common with a number of players here this week, the Spaniard experiences some difficulty in reaching down to tie his shoelaces. The contours of the Old Course do not trouble him as much as the curvature of the spine.

"Seve is 38," Palmer said. "And from some of his remarks I got the impression that he thinks he is getting a little old. I told him that I have a daughter who is a year older. I remember when I hit 40, which is Greg Norman's age now, I thought I'd spent [sic] my career and it was time to slow down. That was 25 years ago. A lot has happened since then."

The most significant thing that happened was that Palmer grew even more famous, becoming, through endorsements, one of the biggest earners in sport. If the prize-money has long since dried up, there are not many more marketable figures in sport. This a true measure of his fame.

Much of it stems from the strength of Palmer's personality and the respect he retains for golf's traditions. "I said the other night that we all have a responsibility to the people coming into golf and the quality of the game. What I see at St Andrews reminds me of those things. In 1964 when I had been working very hard, playing a lot of golf and reasonably successful, I felt extremely tired. I wasn't very old but I felt I'd been at it a long time and should slow down, so I decided not to come over. I was helping out Tony Lema who was a flamboyant person and I suggested he should go. I did two things for Tony. I loaned him my putter - I never got it back - and called Tip Anderson and asked Tip to caddie for him. Tony won the Championship."

In a practice round with Curtis Strange, Davis Love III and Jay Haas yesterday, the enjoyment Palmer still gets from golf was always evident. His swing, never a thing of grace, looked even more tortured, the follow- through appropriately reminiscent of that employed with a broadsword. But it is the result that matters.

A gallery, made up mostly of the middle-aged, gathered quickly as Palmer set off around the course, carving his first tee shot right of the burn. "Just playing for position," he quipped, before sticking his second to within 20 feet.

If the day comes when golf is simply a burden in Palmer's mind, he will put his clubs away for ever. "I have walked off the golf course," he said. "But I made sure nobody was around to see me. In any case, golf is a sort of private time for me and there is always a competition whether I'm playing with Nicklaus or by myself. That competitive thing is ongoing and I wish I could give the feeling to people who play golf without appearing to understand it."

And, yes, there is just a chance he will return to play in the Open. "There is one way I would come back," he smiled. He would return to defend the Championship.

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