By Marino Parascenzo, Special to PGA.com
In greek mythology, Icarus is given the gift of flight. It came from his father, Daedalus, but such a wondrous thing must have come first from the gods. And now we know why Arnold Palmer could never win the PGA Championship.
Daedalus used the gift properly, only to escape from a predicament. But Icarus, as sons are prone to do, ignored his old man's warnings and grew unacceptably bold and flew too high. The Greek gods, always ready with this disaster or that, let the sun melt the wax on his feathered wings, and so he fell down into the sea.
The results weren't quite so severe for Palmer. As he grew and grew with his mighty game, into a threat to Olympus, the gods decided they had to put him in his place. He already had three legs of a career Grand Slam, with the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open. And these, along with everything else that made up the man who would be called "King," meant he was flying too close to the sun.
And so the gods addressed the PGA Championship, the final leg for his career Grand Slam. "This," they said, "is one you cannot have."
And so when Palmer, thus deprived, instead won the Senior PGA Championship on his first try in 1980, he said, with a wry smile: "It's the PGA Championship I never won."
This was not Palmer demeaning the Senior PGA Championship. This was Palmer ribbing himself. This was Paul Bunyan, who had come up against a tree he couldn't handle.
They should have awarded him a PGA Championship for unrequited love. God knows he tried. He played in it 37 times, and only Jack Nicklaus played as many. Palmer made the cut 24 times, tied for second three times, and had three other top 10s. Surely the great Palmer should have found at least one championship among these opportunities. But no. Always, the gods stopped him and cackled.
The ancient Greeks had a god for everything, and at least one victim for every god. There was Tantalus, who was sentenced for eternity to dangle over a lake, and every time he bent to drink, the waters fell, and every time he reached for the fruit overhead, the wind blew the tree limb away. They tantalized Palmer, too, and as time wore on, his cruelest tormentor was Phlatstikkitis, god of putting.
Palmer has played in 23 Senior PGA Championships, and only four competitors played in more (Doug Ford, Fred Haas Jr., Jock Hutchison and Joe Jimenez). Palmer won twice -- 1980 and '84 -- finished second once, and tied for fifth once. As time ground along, he missed the cut 10 straight times from 1994 and withdrew in 2004 at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky. At age 75, he comes as the Honorary Chairman and sentimental favorite to Laurel Valley, the house he helped build, and not far from his Pennsylvania home at Latrobe.
Spectacular Senior Debut
Palmer, playing in only his second senior tournament, made his Senior PGA Championship debut in 1980 at Turnberry Isle Country Club at North Miami, Fla. Same old Arnie. This was impact. The tournament drew the largest galleries ever to view the Senior PGA Championship, which was first played in 1937 at Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club. Some 15,000 tickets were distributed at Turnberry for the week, and 5,500 for the final round, which was about twice as many as the year before at the same course. The 1980 Senior PGA Championship also had its largest press corps by far, almost 50, and it was carried on television -- ESPN -- for the first time, on a delayed basis. Senior golf had turned a corner.
Palmer was 51, and 31 at heart, but creaky with his putter. He was a marvel both ways -- that he managed to win at all, or that he didn't shoot zero. With any kind of short game, he'd have laid waste to the field. Typically, Palmer had to do it the hard way.
Like an Ozzian tornado, the finish swept up Paul Harney and dropped him right into the middle of Been-There-Done-That Land. Palmer beat him on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. Harney knew the feeling. The last time he was in a playoff was 17 years earlier, at the 1963 Thunderbird Classic, and Palmer beat him that day, too.
As the 1980 Senior PGA Championship rolled along, it seemed Palmer was back at his Waterloo, the PGA Championship. He opened his first Senior PGA Championship with a solid but undistinguished par 72, three behind Harney's 69. At a time of whipping winds and tough pins, out of the 68 finishers, only four shot in the 60s, and none more than once; just 21 others broke par for any round (and only two twice), and the cut came in at a huge 9-over 153.
Palmer seemed to get a grip on the tournament in the second round, shooting a five-birdie, two-bogey 69 for a 141 total and a one-stroke lead on George Thomas. But he stumbled in the third round, surrendering the lead to Art Wall -- but not for long. Palmer three-putted for bogeys at Nos. 7 and 10, righted himself with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 11th, then went sprawling again, to a double bogey at the 15th.
"Carelessness," he muttered. Then playing as though the Senior PGA Championship was his birthright, he closed with an abbreviated Palmer Charge, birdie-birdie on a 3-footer at the par-3 17th, and a 12-footer at the 18th, to retake the lead from Wall.
"I played better, but putted very poorly," Palmer said. He needed 35 putts. Wall had taken the trouble to blow a 2-foot par putt on the final hole to clear the way for the Chosen One. But Palmer was quick to reject the Olympian generosity in the final round, almost fatally.
Palmer had 5,000 of Arnie's Army praying as he went missing putts by the handfuls. So it was a contest. In the final round, when Walker Inman Jr. and Wall took themselves out of the running, it was Palmer's to win. But if he thought his putting was shaky in the third round, it was a near disaster in the final. He three-putted No. 2 for a bogey, and missed a few others for a wobbly front-nine 37. On his final nine alone, he had five makeable putts for birdies or pars, and missed all five. Consider that he burned up 20 putts coming in.
"Throughout the week," Palmer said, "my short game wasn't up to the standards I wanted. I must have lost 10 shots around the greens."
The playoff started at the par-3 15th, and ended there. Harney was putting from 60 feet, and missed the birdie. Palmer knocked in a 7-footer. It was only his second birdie of the day. But it was a winner. At last, Palmer had won the PGA Championship -- the Senior PGA Championship.
Vintage Arnie in 1984
Palmer's second Senior PGA Championship victory, in 1984, should carry an asterisk. There were actually two of them that year. Palmer won the January championship, which was actually the missing 1983 Senior PGA Championship that had been moved from the fall because the site, the Champions Course at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., had been preempted by the 1983 Ryder Cup. Peter Thomson would win the second '84 Senior PGA Championship in December.
Palmer's win was Vintage Arnie -- wild, turbulent, heroic. He shared the first-round lead with Bob Toski, Jack Fleck and Doug Sanders at 3-under-par 69. He birdied No. 1 from six feet, holed out a bunker shot for an eagle at the par-5 third hole, just missed another eagle at No. 6, where he stuck a 1-iron second shot to six feet. He was 4-under through the sixth, then he frittered away his hot start and ended up at 69. But Palmer was on a roll. He was fresh from crushing the Boca Raton Seniors with a 17-under-par winning score, and the week before he had won $100,000 against Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in the Skins Game.
"I guess that all that had a lot to do with buoying my confidence," Palmer said. More or less. In the second round, he proceeded to stun the field with a 9-under-par 63, tying the tournament record. He was leading by eight after 36 holes.
The last time you had a round like that? "Ummm, the last time?" Palmer said, "must have been in my dreams."
This was the stuff dreams are made of: Seven birdies, an eagle, no bogeys, and 10 one-putt greens, six of them from 10 feet or more. The eagle came at the 482-yard par-5 No. 6, where he reached the green with a 3-wood second and dropped a 25-foot putt. And an eight-shot lead. The Championship was Palmer's.
Not so fast.
In the third round, in wicked weather of temperatures in the 40s and cutting wet winds, nearly half the field couldn't break 80. Stan Thirsk and Billy Maxwell were the only two to break par. As for Palmer, he boomed to a 79, with five bogeys, a double, and no birdies. Don January shot 73 and closed to within two.
"I just had no feel," Palmer said. "Even my putting let me down." While the Army was squirming, Palmer missed an easy birdie at No. 1, and three-putted No. 2 for a double bogey-6. "That really deflated my balloon," Palmer said. He also bogeyed No. 4, No. 8, and missed a 6-inch putt to bogey No. 9 as well. This is no way for a champ to play.
Now it was a Palmer-January duel Sunday.
"The biggest change for me from Saturday was the weather," Palmer said. That and a swing correction he'd discovered on the practice tee, releasing his shots.
January birdied No. 1 from 12 feet, and Palmer followed him in for birdie from 8 feet out, and the game was on. "If there was a turning point in the round, it might have been at No. 8," Palmer said. January was in the middle of the green in two, and Palmer's second to the par-4 was in a greenside bunker, 45 feet from the hole. Palmer holed his sand shot for a birdie to go three ahead, then holed a 3-foot birdie putt at the 10th for another stroke. Palmer would not be threatened again, even with three bogeys over the final four holes. They both closed with 71s, and Palmer won by two at 6-under 282.
It was said that senior golf had turned the corner with Palmer's victory in the 1980 Senior PGA Championship. If so, then his win in the 1984 Senior PGA Championship -- the crowning jewel in an impressive four-win season -- dragged senior golf on stage and locked up its place in the public heart.
Marino Parascenzo is a freelance golf writer from Ellwood City, Pa., who has covered Arnold Palmer for more than four decades.