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SPORTS WEEKEND

What's an Army Without Arnie?

Legend's Outlook Is Rough, so He's Thinking About Bagging It

June 05, 1998

Arnold Palmer is not a happy golfer. Three months before his 69th birthday, Palmer is playing so poorly, he's thinking out loud about throwing his clubs into that big bag room in the sky, this time for good.

Now, this is not the kind of news people are going to like to hear, but it's sounding pretty serious. Palmer had rounds of 81-76-72 last weekend at the Pittsburgh Senior Classic, where he finished tied for 67th and enjoyed the whole experience so much he just about chucked it in, right on the spot.

Palmer has made references to cutting back his schedule before--for years, in fact. But now he's starting to act as if he really means it. Some of those close to Palmer said they never had seen him so down about his golf after last week's event.

You can't blame Palmer for the way he feels, basically because he has been playing terribly. He hasn't broken par in his last 49 rounds, dating to last August.

And this year marks the 10th anniversary of his last Senior PGA Tour victory, but that's not the point. Palmer doesn't really expect to win, but he does expect to be able to compete and not be embarrassed. He said he's not doing a good job at either one.

"I've always said that sometime after 65 I'd consider doing my thing a little less," Palmer said. "It's easy to say now that I've either got to play a little better golf or not play at all. And that may be the alternative soon. I can always go build golf courses."

Yes, he can. And we all know he can't play tour golf forever, even if we wish he could.

Palmer's place in golf history is secure, even if his future in it isn't. Jack Nicklaus won more tournaments and more majors, but it was Palmer who ushered golf into the television age and whose charisma forever changed the way we look at sports and modern heroes.

Palmer said he just isn't able to focus on his game the way he wants, much less play it the way he wants.

"I get enthused some days and there is good and bad every day. But I don't know. . . . It's a difficult thing every day. My mind is just not working. Part of it is confidence. I don't have the confidence in my shotmaking, and without it I'm really lost."

So, if all that's true, when's the retirement coming? From his reaction, you could tell it's not something Palmer likes to consider.

"It's like asking me when I'm going to die."

And to top off a miserable weekend, Palmer's poor play meant he had the first tee time Sunday--7:20 a.m. The last round began that early because there was a 4 p.m. finish scheduled, not for television, but to enable the players to leave the course in time to make their Monday corporate outings or to simply get home early.

Palmer, who commuted 65 miles from his home in Latrobe by helicopter, had to get up at 4 a.m. Sunday to make his tee time.

Besides his golf, Palmer wasn't very happy about the early start, either, since it inconvenienced the fans.

The way it turned out, Palmer made his tee time and so did about 1,000 members of Arnie's Army, who showed up early to cheer. They probably didn't know their leader is nearing his last march.

DAYS OF FRED

At 38, Fred Couples is only two swings away from having four wins this year before June.

As it is, he has two victories anyway--the Bob Hope and the Memorial--quickly reestablished himself as one of golf's premier players and possibly even made himself a contender at the U.S. Open, June 18-21 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

But those two shots . . . remember them? Couples surely does.

The first was on the last day at the Masters when he knocked his ball into the creek on the par-five 13th hole and made double bogey. He finished second, one stroke behind winner Mark O'Meara.

The second was on the last day of the Byron Nelson, where Couples waited until the par-three 17th hole before drowning his ball and making triple bogey. He finished second again, three behind John Cook.

Couples was asked recently what he had learned from dunking two golf balls in the water when he had a chance to win.

"I don't learn any more. I learned enough."

Life goes on.

MORE FRED

After he won last week's Memorial, the question came up just where Couples now ranks among the game's hierarchy. Is he right there with the best of them?

Sort of, Couples said.

"Ernie Els is a great player. Nick Faldo is a great player. I consider myself right beneath them, which is fine. Great is--you just don't throw the word around. So I consider 'good' not too bad."

With two firsts, two seconds and a third so far this year, Couples is performing the way he did in 1991-92 when he was the No. 1-ranked player in the world.

BAAAAAA!

From the Now-It-Can-Be-Told Department: James McLean, the 19-year-old Minnesota freshman who won the individual title at the NCAA golf championships last week, was about as far from Minnesota as you can get only five months ago.

McLean hails from Wahgunjah, Victoria, in Australia, where he says there are more sheep than people.

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