Golf needs superstars like Tiger Woods and, as I watch Tiger struggling to regain his mojo despite his recent win at the Memorial, I remember when I saw Arnold Palmer lose his, at the same Olympic Club where Woods and his fellow golfers will gather in the U.S. Open.
Golfers are probably the most cooperative of professional athletes. At the end of each round, they’ll troop dutifully into the media tent to go over their rounds, sometimes almost shot by shot.
At the same time, though, most golfers are colorless, more like each other than the often explosive characters in football, baseball and basketball. No Randy Moss or Kobe Bryant. The large group of people who golf recreationally form the basis of the viewers’ pool, but to get beyond that to the casual fans who only watch the playoffs in team sports, golf needs that larger-than-life persona.
Palmer was very much that when he burst onto the pro golf scene in the ’50s, swaggering down the fairways, going for the pin at every opportunity, while talking to fans along the way. He looked like a guy who could play center field for the Giants or cornerback for the 49ers, a true athlete in comparison to rivals such as Billy Casper or even Jack Nicklaus, still in his hefty period.
At the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club, I followed Ben Hogan and Nicklaus for a time. But they were the backup acts. Palmer was the star, as he strode purposefully down the fairways, making what seemed to be impossible shots. The roar of the crowd following him could be heard from any spot on the course, and he totally dominated the tournament for the first 63 holes.
And then, he forgot that his primary goal should be to win the tournament. The Olympic Club is a tight course under normal circumstances. After the USGA gets through tricking it up, it is almost supernaturally tight. It punishes golfers who take chances, and on what should have been the final nine holes of the tournament, Palmer took chance after chance — and he lost almost every time.
Almost before anybody, certainly including Palmer himself, knew what had happened, Palmer had fallen into a tie with Casper, who won the playoff the next day.
Palmer never again won a major tournament. He retained his loyal following, always the most loved golfer on the tour, but he was passed by Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino. He had lost his mojo.
Tiger has never been the warm personality that Palmer was. But he was certainly the superstar, the only athlete to be in Michael Jordan’s league in endorsements. He was an overpowering figure. I remember him striding confidently down the Pebble Beach fairway in 2000, a huge crowd of fans following him, en route to a 10-stroke win.
Then after 14 majors, his world fell apart, amid reports of multiple liaisons with scandalous women. Tiger had lost his mojo.
I doubt he’ll regain it at the Olympic Club, and in fact, he’ll probably never get it back. Professional golf will have to look elsewhere for that bigger-than-life star.