Guest writer

Off the Fringe


Sunday, January 27, 2002

Nicklaus and Palmer
still got game

WAILEA, Maui >> Many of today's young golf fans don't have a real sense of history.

They believe the game begins and ends with Tiger Woods. And given the media and advertising blitz that accompanies Woods wherever he goes, it's hard to argue his impact on the modern game.

But before the 26-year-old grabbed the PGA Tour by the tail and popularized the phrase, "I am Tiger Woods," Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus walked the fairways of America. They made the game what it is today, regardless of what those folks on Madison Avenue would have you believe.

You won't get any argument from the white-haired ladies and gentlemen who followed Palmer and Nicklaus at this weekend's Senior Skins at the Wailea Gold Course. They enjoyed "youngsters" Hale Irwin and Fuzzy Zoeller, but it was the game's two greats they came to see.

Neither disappointed. At 72, Palmer can still compete in a format like this. So can Nicklaus, who hadn't played competitively since last summer because of a bad back, but still set the record for the most money to start the Senior Skins with a birdie on No. 7 worth $150,000.

Nicklaus recently turned 60 and is battling a variety of ailments that can plague someone his age. He turned pro some 40-odd years ago, seven seasons after Palmer began his professional career in 1954.

Between them, they have won 130 PGA Tour events, including 28 majors.

Nicklaus is the only player to capture all four grand slam titles on both tours. The twosome has won 20 senior events between them and had fans cheering them on before Woods was a twinkle in his daddy's eye.

"You can't take away what Tiger has done for the game," a gracious Nicklaus said. "Winning four consecutive majors is an incredible accomplishment, I don't care what era you're talking about. But Arnie made the game what it is today."

Palmer gives a big assist to TV. Those old enough to remember he and his army charging across the black-and-white screens of the 1950s and early '60s, know he is The King. Without his swagger and bold play, it's likely the game wouldn't have emerged from the country club set quite as quickly.

IT ALSO HELPED that Nicklaus and Palmer were such great competitors on the course. Nicklaus passed Palmer in the late '60s and '70s. The legendary Bobby Jones once said, "He plays the game at a level I'm not familiar."

Perhaps Woods will do the same in the decades to come. He needs someone near his equal to create the drama Nicklaus and Palmer enjoyed for so many years. Still today, Palmer and Nicklaus have that competitive zeal. They enjoy beating the other, even in a made-for-TV event like the Senior Skins.

After Nicklaus hit the putt to win the first seven skins, two holes later, Irwin made a birdie to give him a shot at $60,000. Palmer had about a nine-foot putt for birdie to halve the hole. As he lined it up, Nicklaus said, "Mr. Palmer, I find myself rooting for you." Palmer gave his fiercest rival a sardonic smile, then said, "That's a rarity."

After Palmer rammed it in, Nicklaus sought out Palmer, gave him a high five and said, "Mr. Palmer, nicely done."

These two are golf's true royalty. Woods still has to wait another quarter-century to see if he assumes the throne.

Paul Arnett can be reached at:

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