Arnie's still got the grin, the stroke, the style

In the distant and hoary 1980s, back about the time electricity was invented and many downtowns started getting paved streets, it became excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch Arnold Palmer play golf as his starry game dimmed.

After all, here was a man so competitive, so talented, and so charismatic that, by himself, all he did was propel golf from a mildly interesting activity of the rich to a wildly popular craze of the millions. Palmer is to golf what Ford was to cars, Skelton to nonsense, Kitty Hawk to flight, and Springer to sleaze.

His astounding record still evokes gasps. Palmer won four Masters, the last coming in 1964, 11 years before Tiger Woods was born. He was second two more times. He once played seven consecutive rounds here at cranky Augusta National under par, tying him for the record. Palmer won two British Opens, a US Open, and altogether a whopping 92 professional tournaments.

He'd whack the dimpled white ball with that seemingly undisciplined, roundhouse swing. Then he'd squint against the sun and hitch his trousers and stride the fairway. Then, more often than not, he'd decide to play over a hazard and not just up to it, as the faint of heart and skill preferred. It would work, and then he'd ram in a twisting putt for a birdie.

The crowd would erupt. And Arnie would flash that grin that made us feel enormously happy just to be allowed to share the planet with him.

But, by the 1980s, Arnie was way past his peak. The best he could do that decade here at the Masters was a tie for 24th in 1980. Then his game went precipitously downhill. And while it was still Palmer who drew the thunderous mobs of frenzied disciples on golf courses around the world, to view his play made many want to avert their gaze.

To watch him shoot a 75, then 78, then, oh, my, 81, worse, was just too painful. We wanted to bask in his shadow, and now he was only a shadow of his former self. His incredible drives became short and often errant. He'd three-putt. Approaches strayed.

Palmer was disgusted with his game, and so were we. See, his great past was too close and we remembered it too well and why couldn't he buck up and do it again?

But, glory be, a great new day has dawned for Arnold Palmer.

He now has reached that wondrous stage in life and golf where nobody expects him to be able to make a golf ball do miraculous things. Last weekend here, Palmer played in his 45th straight Masters, more than anyone.

He shot an 83 the first day, 78 the second. Of course he missed the cut. Yet it no longer is painful to watch. Same swing, just different results. That's fine. His game now seems elegantly timeless. Passing time can be a good thing. Yet, in a field of celebrity golfers - Woods, David Duval, Greg Norman - the biggest celebrity of them all, by far, was Arnie.

The reason is that no golf fan, no sports fan, no human who appreciates the extraordinary, can see too much of Palmer. He reminds many of simpler days, days of less technology and more sitting on porch swings. Arnie's was a black-and-white world before color altered our perceptions. Black-and-white was gorgeous.

Palmer is what many of us wanted to be in our dreams. He's a hero, a celebrity, a wealthy business magnate, a magnificent athlete, a raconteur, a man for all reasons and all seasons. The rich and famous and powerful grovel at his knee. Arnie sometimes would finish a round, go jump in his airplane which he piloted, buzz the course, and then scream back home to Latrobe, Pa.

He had style and flair and pizazz. Still does.

So, it was discussed late one evening somewhere in New York City, would you rather be president or Palmer? The vote was 6-0, Palmer.

Now that we've cleared that bumpy stretch when watching him was embarrassing for everyone, we're right back to the good old days. We love him and his game for what both were, and what both are.

So what about those poor rounds here of 83 and 78, 17 over par and the 16th straight time Palmer had failed to make the cut so he could compete the final two days?

They were beautiful. Simply beautiful.

*Send comments to looneyd@csps.com

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