[ GOLF ]

Tom Watson became the big Champions Skins winner because of Arnold Palmer's missed putt.

Senior Skins
in danger

WAILEA, Maui >> Arnold Palmer looked sad and defeated as he sat alone to face a few media members who were a little reluctant to ask him how he had let this one get away.

A few moments before, a PGA spokesman met "The King'' at the bottom of the stairs and congratulated him for his efforts as the playoff for this year's Wendy's Champions Skins Game played on without him.

"I could have won this thing,'' was Palmer's response, his six previous birdies over the course of the two-day event all but forgotten. The only thing that had been standing between Palmer and the five skins worth $260,000 was 7 feet of green.

Back in the day, Palmer would have charged after a putt of that length, hands held aloft as the ball found the bottom of the cup. But on this late Saturday afternoon at the Wailea Golf Club Gold Course, the 74-year-old legend was too tentative at the final hole of regulation.

Instead of rapping it steady and true across the tricky grain of the bermuda green, Palmer struck it gingerly and the grain proved to be his undoing as the ball slid past the hole, clearing the way for a man 20 years his junior to win the grand prize.

Eventual skins champion Tom Watson called it "a gift." His miss of an 8-foot birdie putt had cleared the way for one of the great endings of the popular Skins Game, one folks would have talked about for years to come. But it wasn't meant to be.

After answering a few questions as to how he felt for letting what would have been the biggest prize of his 50-year professional career escape his grasp, Palmer was asked if he'd be back next year.

"Are they having it again?" Palmer asked. "I heard this may be the last year."

Fortunately for those who enjoy watching the game's biggest legends, there's one year left on the current contract. After ConAgra Foods backed out of its sponsorship -- it did the same to the Hawaii Bowl a year ago -- many wondered who would step up to cover the costs.

Wendy's came forward to fill the bill and apparently will do so for the final year of the contract with ABC-TV and ESPN. But after that, it's anyone's guess whether this made-for-TV event will live on.

Part of the problem is replacing Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. While Palmer will likely swing a club until his final days, Nicklaus hinted that competitive golf won't always be in his future.

"If I can't win, I'm not really interested in playing golf forever," Nicklaus said on the eve of the Skins Game. "Arnold is golf. He'll never stop playing. But I'm not interested in finishing 20th each week on tour. I'm out here to win."

What you don't see on TV is how tired these men are after playing 18 holes with amateurs and at least 18 holes of competitive golf in only two days. They aren't as spry as they once were, case in point Lee Trevino. He may have seriously injured his hip before coming to Hawaii for what he calls "the greatest paid vacation anyone could want."

He could no longer compete with Watson at the third playoff hole and missed his tying putt of 5 feet on purpose because he couldn't go on.

He apologized to Watson and to organizers off camera. Anyone who knows Trevino, knows his competitive streak is as wide as the fairways at the Plantation Course in Kapalua. There's no quit in the "Merry Mex," unless something is drastically wrong.

Trevino planned an MRI back in Texas to make sure his hip wasn't fractured. There were a couple of shots on Saturday's nine holes on which he grimaced painfully on his follow-through.

So where does that leave organizers of this event? It keeps them wondering how much longer these legends can go on, and when they can't, who will be attractive enough to maintain the Super Sunday event.

Watson is certainly a contender. So will Greg Norman be once he crosses the 50 plateau. Fuzzy Zoeller is also worthy of consideration, and Hale Irwin deserves a second shot to come back in the future. But they don't hold the allure of Nicklaus and Palmer. And in the end, that may be the deciding factor as to whether the Senior Skins plays through or calls it a day.


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