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After the recent Open Championship, in which for the first time in many weeks I managed to stay in contention the whole way, a friend who had watched on TV said, "Arnie, it was great to have you back." I said, "It was great to have golf back."
Before I get into the matter of what it is like to be a pro after 40—and Arnold Palmer after 40—I must say that the long, arduous, tremendously difficult course at Winged Foot, where the best score was seven over par, is what a genuine championship is all about. Win or lose, any real pro loves a challenging course like that. If we played more tournaments over layouts like Winged Foot, I feel sure I would have won more often, even in my recent post-40 years. So would Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. A course like that makes a difference in how you approach the game; it forces you to do your best. Winged Foot certainly gave Hale Irwin his finest hour.
Many of the week-by-week courses played along the tour are too easy for the pros, especially now that the fairways and greens are always in pluperfect condition. It is too easy to get on the green, almost impossible to get into serious trouble. The tournament often boils down to a putting contest—and with so many good players around, there are probably at least 50 or 100 pros who can win a putting contest on any given day.
Winged Foot was wonderful for the spectators, too, because it made the pros seem human. I heard one man in the gallery say, "It's great to see the pros duff it around the way I do." If every course made the pros look like amateurs, this same spectator might soon start saying, "Hell, I play that good; why should I waste my time watching these fellows?" We need all kinds of courses, those where birdies come easy as well as those where you have to play your heart out to avoid a bogey. But the tough courses are the challenge, the thing that gets the adrenalin flowing even in a man of 44. Maybe especially in a man of 44.
I had my chance going into the final day but fell short. Was I disappointed? You know I was. Have I done some second-guessing? You know I have. I have spent considerable time asking myself: How would I have played that course 10 years ago? Would I have done it differently? Would I have done better?
Yon never know. As you get older, you lose a little in many respects. I am unable to take the club back as far on the backswing as I once did; nor am I able to finish as high. I can no longer let out as I once could when the opportunity presented itself, like a tee shot on a par-5 when you must hit an extra-long drive to have a chance to reach the green in two. On the average, I am perhaps five to 10 yards shorter with the driver.
That five or 10 yards on the average drive and perhaps an extra 25 yards when I would like to let out, can make a difference. Not much of a difference—perhaps one stroke on an occasional par-5 hole or a long par-4, perhaps a quarter to a half stroke a round on the average. But tournaments are often won or lost by less than that. And perhaps there are other things I have lost that I am not even aware of. How can you remember exactly how you played, exactly what you could do or could not do 10 or 15 years ago, in a long-gone time when your recollections are obscured and distorted by the hundreds and thousands of rounds of golf played in the meantime? Over a period in which your talents have waxed and waned, as every golfer's do, from day to day and even from hole to hole?
One thing I certainly miss, as does every golfer as he gets older, is those split-second reflexes of youth. This may sound odd, because golf is not a game of sheer reflexes like most other sports—like baseball, for example, in which reflex responses play such an obvious role. The batter's eyes spot the pitch and his brain issues instantaneous and unthinking instructions about where and when to swing. The shortstop grabs a line drive coming at him so fast he is hardly conscious of seeing it at all. When a baseball player's reflexes slow down, as they are bound to do with age, he can do nothing as easily as he once did.
For the golfer, the ball is just waiting there; he has all the time he wants to plan his shot and swing. His reflexes would hardly seem to come into play—yet they do in one important way that makes golf more difficult as you get older.
When I was young, I could make a serious mistake in the swing and get away with it. I might jerk the club head back too abruptly from the ball, or swing too fast. If I did, my body was somehow aware of it and my reflexes—those happy, unconscious, marvelous reflexes of youth—made automatic corrections. These adjustments sometimes saved the shot altogether, or at least kept the ball on the fringe of the fairway instead of in the deep rough. Who knows how many faulty swings turned into decent shots for me? Five hundred? Several thousand? Now it is much harder to recover after a bad move at any point in the swing. My reflexes are no longer fast enough to save me from my follies.