The king is dead, and it looks like a suicide.
Until only a few weeks ago, I would've argued that you, Arnold Palmer, were still the center of the golf universe. Although Jack Nicklaus long ago eclipsed you as a player, Greg Norman seems to be a better businessman, and Tiger Woods is a larger figure on the world stage, you, Arnie, were special. You were the one who reinvented golf by turning it into televised entertainment. You were the one who brought an elitist game to the people. You were the definition of charisma. You had power. You had style. You looked the public right in the eye and connected, in person and on TV. I never heard anyone root against you, something I can't say about Nicklaus, Norman or Woods. Imagine, four decades after your prime—and a dozen years since you were even competitive on the Senior tour—you were still golf's most important figure, loved, respected and trusted by all.
Then, on Oct. 18, you said we didn't have to play by the rules anymore. You blindsided the USGA, the game's guardian and an outfit you've served for 25 years, by endorsing a decision made by your new employer, Callaway, to sell drivers that do not conform to the USGA's Rules of Golf. On that day—the day you, the King, said that it's all right to cheat, that it's O.K. to play with illegal equipment—your reign ended.
Arnie, you're an icon, a national treasure. And you're dead wrong. You're buck naked, an emperor with no clothes. So far, out of respect, you've drawn only mild criticism. Just think if Woods or Scott Hoch or Callaway staffers like Johnny Miller and Colin Montgomerie had said. what you said. They would have gotten hammered. More important, I don't get where you're coming from. You say that recreational golf isn't the same as tournament play, and that weekend golfers take mulligans and gimmes and don't play by the rules, anyway. Sorry, Arnie, the games are one and the same. A gimme is a conceded putt, a convention of match play. A mulligan is a courtesy off the 1st tee. An illegal driver that gives you an extra 10 or 15 yards? That's a mulligan off every tee. That's cheating. I agree with Davis Love III. He says using illegal equipment is "like lowering the rim to seven feet in basketball. I don't think that's the right approach."
Having two sets of rules is more than a slippery slope. It's the down escalator to golfing hell. Tell me, Arnie: Where does playing for fun stop and competition begin? When do I play by your Revised Rules of Golf? During the Sunday-afternoon couples league? During late-evening rounds with my son? During $10 matches with my neighbor or only when the Nassau is $2? During pro-ams when I'm playing for prizes?
I don't get it, Arnie. If a hot driver is O.K, then am I to assume that you don't mind if I play a nonconforming ball too? Are you saying I'll enjoy the game more if I carry eight irons, five sand wedges, three putters and seven woods? You think I'll have more fun if I ignore the out-of-bounds stakes and simply play it if I can find it—anywhere? What about my USGA handicap? You're not saying I can post a score I shot while using illegal equipment, are you?
Here's my idea, Arnie: If you keep score, play by the rules. If you don't keep score, stay on the driving range. Simple.
I've got news for you, Arnie. You can't make me cheat, and you can't make me play with cheaters. I'm offended that you're even trying.
This entire business doesn't pass my smell test. You sign a longtime deal with Callaway one day, you turn on the USGA the next. I thought you were the king of endorsements, Arnie. Do you really need the money? Woods joked that you support illegal clubs because you're 71 and need some distance off the tee. You're not that selfish, are you?
For years you've been talking about retiring, although I've never believed that you would. You love playing the game too much. We've also loved watching you, no matter the score. That's over now. I'll be rooting against you in your last big match: the King versus the Rules of Golf.