The applause was sustained and rich down every fairway; the bronzed face and silvery hair were framed memorably against the muted earth tones of the home of golf; and the stride was as dogged as ever in negotiating the ancient hillocks. The scene seemed perfect, but it wasn't so easy being Arnold Palmer as he bade his competitive farewell to the British Open last week at St. Andrews.
He may be the King, but Palmer, at age 65, couldn't escape the tyranny of the scorecard and was clearly overmatched by the Old Course. He played, as he always had, to win with honor and with every ounce of his will, but it wasn't pretty. On the first hole he three-putted, which shook his fragile confidence, and he followed that with a four-putt on No. 2, which numbed his mind. He shot 83–75 to miss the 36-hole cut by 10 strokes.
St. Andrews was the site of yet another mortality check for Palmer in his exit from the game. Even more than during his goodbyes last year at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, there were indications all around that time was running out. The week before the British Open, in the intense heat during the Senior Players Championship, he had broken a lifelong taboo and used a cart during a competitive round. When he arrived in Scotland, he quickly found that the legendary caddie who had been by his side in 22 previous British Opens—Tip Anderson—was too feeble to carry his bag. When visiting the pressroom, Palmer saw his former Boswell, longtime Pittsburgh reporter Bob Drum, hobbled by the effects of a stroke. But unlike at the 1994 U.S. Open, where he was overcome by emotion, Palmer was steeled for a mission. He came to St. Andrews to provide closure—for himself, for the townspeople and for golf—to one of the most perfect circles in the history of the game.
It was Palmer who, by becoming in 1960 the first top American in years to play in the British Open, rescued the championship and paved the way for the restoration of the Old Course as the premier stage in the game. Indeed, Palmer had vowed to make the 1990 Open at St. Andrews his final appearance in the championship. But his mistaken assumption that a 36-hole total of even par would be good enough to make the cut quashed his send-off, and Palmer reneged on his promise to bow out. While his return this year was almost certain to be a competitive embarrassment, Palmer's sense of duty to golf—and his inability to turn down a challenge—ensured he would come back.
Palmer first arrived at St. Andrews as the winner of the 1960 Masters and the U.S. Open, thereby simultaneously inventing and attempting to win the modern Grand Slam. But he had felt the ancestral call of the game long before he could afford to cross the ocean, in large part because his father, Deacon, was a club pro strictly trained in the Scots tradition. Arnold has confessed that he always longed for the approval of his father, who meted it out grudgingly yet was never more effusive than during their first trip to St. Andrews.
When Palmer returned to America, after finishing second by a stroke to Kel Nagle, he spread the gospel among his fellow pros. He was a powerful emissary, the game's most beloved figure promoting its most beloved site.
And it is at St. Andrews that Palmer's most defining traits—inexhaustible hope and optimism, as well as an endearing ability to laugh about the grave seriousness of it all—are most at home. Palmer instinctively understood that the essence of links golf, particularly at the Old Course, is to accept and endure. As the golfer whom Dan Jenkins called "the doggedest victim of them all," Palmer used his zest and bearing to spend a career making people feel better.
"Some people think of me as just plain lucky," he once said. "I can't argue with them. I would like to say, however, that a man might be walking around lucky and not know it unless he tries."
Trying no matter what will be Palmer's legacy. After making his final visit to the Road Bunker last Friday, he crossed the Swilken Burn and strode through a tunnel of adoration along the 18th hole. Along with the multitudes who rose from their seats in the grandstands and hung out the windows of the buildings adjoining the course was a host of players who had come to witness the moment. One was Lee Trevino, a fellow two-time champion, who also had decided that this would be his final British Open but out of deference to Palmer had not announced his intention.
After he holed a five-foot putt for par, it was over. Palmer smiled and kept a tight rein on his sentiments, but the effort he needed made it clear how much he has relished his stage and how much he will miss it.