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As the years roll by, Palmer still the king

He has worked on his game, but Arnie's Army doesn't care, win or lose.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

Fans flock to see him, perhaps more than any other player.

Arnold Palmer no longer is a threat to win tournaments on the Senior PGA Tour and is a 72-year-old grandfather who frets over his game, but remarkably, he remains one of golf's most recognizable figures.

Palmer will be in town for the Verizon Classic this week at the TPC of Tampa Bay, and don't be surprised to see him sweating on the driving range at some point before or after a round, trying to find the magic that all too often is missing.

Maybe that is why fans love him so much. His scores settle around the high 70s, his drives travel "only" 260-270 yards, a few iron shots don't find their intended destination.

That is the kind of life Palmer leads these days. He grumbles about his game but remains determined to do something about it.

"Even more so this year than ever before, if my game comes together, I will play a little bit more," said Palmer, winner of 60 PGA Tour titles, 10 senior events and seven major championships. "I'm working pretty hard to get my game back in shape. I played so poorly last year. I really decided we're at the breaking point. Other than maybe token appearances, unless my game gets better I'm not going to play."

Palmer has made such threats in the past, but the game keeps drawing him back.

He made his 42nd start recently at the Bob Hope Classic, where he last won a PGA Tour event in 1973. He has not won on the Senior PGA Tour since 1988. Two weeks ago he played in the Senior Skins Game with Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and Fuzzy Zoeller. This week he makes his first official senior start of the year.

And he appears intent on giving it his best effort.

"This is the first time I'm into something as serious as we are doing right now," Palmer said of his practice regime. "My outlook, I suppose, is better than it has been in recent years. I'm doing more serious practicing than I have in some time."

Palmer has been working with Doug Mauch, head pro at the Tradition in La Quinta, Calif., where Palmer spent most of the winter. After averaging 78.8 strokes on the senior tour last year, including scores of 89 and 93, he was determined to get back to some better golf.

"I think for the most part, the fans don't care," said David Porter, tournament director for the Verizon Classic. "They would love nothing better than to see him be in contention and win a tournament again. But he is so good with the people, so charismatic with the crowds. They just want to see him in person, see him swing a golf club. I know he would prefer to be in contention. But people want to see him regardless."

Palmer's hope is to regain some lost distance and hit crisper iron shots. "It's really too complicated to even talk about," he said.

Beyond this week, Palmer makes few promises. He will play the Masters but said he is "questionable" for his own Bay Hill tournament on the PGA Tour next month in Orlando.

Palmer accepted a sponsor's exemption into the Verizon Classic, and even that is telling. Palmer has a lifetime exemption on the PGA Tour for his 1960 U.S. Open victory, but he technically no longer is exempt on the Senior PGA Tour. Palmer, the first player to earn $1-million, has dropped to 74th on the all-time career earnings list ($3,574,236), one of the main exemption criteria. Hence, the need for sponsors' invites, which he will have no trouble getting.

"We're thrilled to have him in the field anytime we can get him," Porter said.

Make no mistake, it will pay off. Fans flock to see Palmer, no matter the scores.

"First of all, I love to play golf," he said. "As poorly as I've been playing, I still have been out on the golf course a lot and having fun. Hitting a good shot still turns me on, I get a kick out of it. The only other thing I do a lot of is fly, and my businesses still take a lot of my time. I have to get out on the golf course."

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