A final look at The King? Fans still flock to Arnold Palmer, but this could be his last Challenge
- Kerry Eggers
- Portland Tribune - Sports
Your last opportunity to join Arnie's Army could come Tuesday at Portland Golf Club.
That is when Arnold Palmer and Peter Jacobsen team up for what may be the final time on the second day of the Umpqua Bank Challenge.
Palmer has been a fixture at Peter's Portland parties over the years, the only golfer to participate in all 18 of Jacobsen's challenge events through Fred Meyer and Umpqua Bank.
To all great things there comes an end, however. And Arnie's is coming.
'The King' turns 82 on Sept. 10 and, frankly, his golf game is finally beginning to show it.
Don't get me wrong. Palmer can still hit some splendid shots, and he'd kick my tail, just as he would 90 percent of you out there in reader land.
'I wish I had his game,' one 50ish member of the gallery said at as he walked past me Monday.
But the man who always played with such style and verve, who went after it with the elan of a fencing champion, is kind of creaky these days.
Palmer knows it, of course. He has played Portland all these years as a favor to Jacobsen, 57, with whom he enjoys a unique relationship. Arnie, who lives in Orlando, shook his head when I asked how often he now plays golf.
'Very little,' said Palmer, who teamed with Jacobsen for a 1-under-par 71 in Monday's opening round, the highest score of the six twosomes. 'I hit some balls once in a while.
'I'm pretty discouraged about it. My right hip has been giving me trouble for years, and that has caused me to cut back a lot. I play with some friends at home, and that's about it.'
Partnering with Jacobsen and playing in a foursome with John Cook and Jay Haas - all Champions Tour players in their 50s - Palmer was typically 50 to 75 yards behind off the tee.
There was talk of allowing Palmer to hit from something shorter than championship tees, 'but he wouldn't hear of it,' said P.J. Carlesimo, the former Trail Blazers coach who played in Sunday's pro-am and walked the entire 18 holes with close friend Jacobsen on Monday. 'He could be 100 years old, but he'd still insist on hitting from the same tees.'
Jacobsen was basically playing his own ball Monday. It's hard to estimate, because Palmer picked up on several holes, but he probably would have scored somewhere in the low to mid 90s.
Didn't matter a lick to Jacobsen, who clearly adores Palmer and the idea of partnering with him. Certainly, it mattered nothing to the crowd, which whooped and hollered with every good shot by the old master.
'Nobody cares how he plays, except him,' said David Jacobsen, Peter's older brother who caddied for Palmer, as he has done 15 times over the years. 'You can imagine how hard he is trying.'
Jacobsen - one of the area's top amateur players over the past four decades - spent much of his time Monday coaching Palmer. Imagine how it must feel, giving advice to a legend.
'We were talking about the golf swing,' David said. 'He was asking me if he was doing this or that. You know how golfers are.
'Arnold is my friend. I want him to play well. I'm doing everything I can to help him enjoy his time in Portland.'
David first caddied for Palmer in 1982 when he played in the U.S. Senior Open at PGC.
'Arnold had called Peter and asked if he knew anybody who could caddy for him, because he wasn't going to bring his (regular) caddy with him,' David recalled. 'Peter asked, 'How about my brother?' "
Peter's relationship with Palmer dates back to his early years on the PGA Tour out of the University of Oregon in the late '70s. Peter signed with agent Mark McCormack, who was Palmer's manager and close friend.
'Arnold and I were thrown in together in a lot of pro-ams and outings,' Peter said. 'I shut my mouth just long enough to learn a few things.
'It has served me well. I've gotten everything from the game of golf, and I've learned so much from Arnold.'
'He has been such a mentor to Peter,' David said.
Some of it has come through observation. In many ways, Palmer has served as a father figure to Peter, who lost his father, Erling, in 1992.
'When I got on the tour, I didn't know what I was doing out there,' Jacobsen said. 'I started playing a lot of golf with Arnold and saw how he responded to people, and it taught me to be myself. You can't put on any airs. You can't pretend to be somebody you're not. I'm comfortable in my own skin.'
Both Jacobsens have gotten to know Palmer well. David has served as his host during Challenge weekend 17 times.
'I pull for him,' David said. 'I think so highly of him. I have watched him do things for others he didn't have to do. He's an example of a kind, first-class human being. What an honor it's been to hang around with him all these years and hear his stories.'
'If you knew all the work in the community Arnold has done in Orlando, well, it's incredible,' Peter said. 'He works tirelessly. I aspire to be just a little like him.'
Palmer may not be the greatest golfer in the history - Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods might be ahead of him there - but he is likely the most popular player in the sport's annals. That's where Palmer and Jacobsen share a trait. They both ooze charisma. Palmer, with his propensity to charge, was the one who helped make pro golf a popular TV enterprise beginning in the '60s.
'We're all where we are because of Arnold,' Peter said. 'He has been the defining figure in the game of golf.'
It's all why Palmer was the favorite of my late father, and so many men now in the 60-plus age group. Many of them were on hand Monday, cheering on the aging giant.
'Thanks for coming, Arnie!' one yelled, and Palmer waved.
The other players - all at least 25 years younger than Palmer - seemed genuinely pleased to have him in the field for this event, a 36-hole best-ball.
'He was a generation ahead of me, but he set the stage for so much of what we do today,' Haas said. 'He has been an idol of mine, but he is mostly a friend, somebody you want to hang around with.
'Being around him and knowing the history he has in this game, it's cool. Who knows when will be the last time he'll play? To be in his group was a thrill for me.'
Palmer still seems to get up for the big moments. After a huge ovation while being introduced, he hit a beautiful drive down the middle off the first tee, to the delight of the gallery.
After striding toward the 18th green to a standing ovation, Palmer stuck a wedge about four feet from the hole. Missed the putt, though Haas playfully redirected it in.
In between, Palmer took his lumps, hitting traps and water and trees as do all of us 20-handicappers. It's enough to keep a legend humble, except Arnie has always carried himself with a level of humility.
'Nice shot, Arnie!' he chided himself good-naturedly after failing to get out of the sand on the par-3 17th hole.
And then it was over, and Palmer looked tired as he met with the media, even after riding for most of the round in an electric cart.
Asked if he would return to Portland for next year's event, Palmer shrugged.
'I'm not so sure,' he said. 'I'm getting to the point where I don't know whether I could make it another time. But I'll always keep hope in my mind, anyway.'
Peter knows there are no promises about the future.
'It would be great to have him back next year, but I don't know,' Peter said. 'We always focus one year at a time.'
'Every year, Arnold has told Peter it's the last year he is coming,' David said. 'I always work my behind off to make sure he has a good time, so he'll want to return.
'He may not come back again. That's why I'm enjoying every second today. I'm hoping he does.'
Palmer was asked if he appreciates the love he still gets from those in the gallery.
'Oh, yes,' he said. 'When that stops, I stop.'
If only that were true. The Arnold Palmer story could go on forever.