MUIRFIELD, Scotland — He was inch-deep in wet sand, swinging in a way that did not fit him at all. One stroke, two strokes. The ball barely moved. Three strokes. Four strokes. The ball curled back into the dent of his footprint. Five strokes. Five strokes? How crazy was this? Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest names in the history of golf, was swinging himself right out of this British Open, without ever leaving the sand trap.
The spectators stood quiet. Some bit their lips. It was like watching an aging Nureyev slip during a pirouette. Like hearing Sinatra sing an entire number in the wrong key. “He’s just kidding around,” a voice seemed to say,
“That’s it, right? He’s kidding?”
He was not kidding. Human legends grow older, and Arnold Palmer, the legend, is 57 now, playing here thanks only to a new rule that exempts former champions from having to qualify — a rule created mostly for him. Until the 14th hole on this rain-chilled second round, he was playing pretty well. “He’s going to make the cut,” his followers whispered.
And then, what happened? What didn’t happen? His tee shot landed in the right fairway bunker. One. He knocked it out. Two. He whacked a 3-iron into that deep left bunker. Three. And then . . . swing-swing-swing-swing-swing .
. . finally out in a cough of sand. Eight. A 20-foot putt hit the back of the cup. Nine. A final tap in . . .
Ten. He was history. He would miss the cut. Arnold Palmer had taken 10 shots on one hole.
“What were you thinking between all those bunker swings?” someone asked him.
“You wouldn’t want to print it,” he said. He needed divine intervention He stood now in a crowd of reporters, just seconds after coming off the course. He might have liked to slip away quietly. He might have liked to have taken those embarrassing swings with no one watching. Dream on. That kind of privacy doesn’t exist for Arnold Palmer anymore.
So he stood there patiently, in his green wool sweater and yellow shirt, and now and then he rubbed a palm over his tanned face, sometimes holding it to his cheek, like Jack Benny used to do before saying “Oh, dear.”
“How many shots on the 14th bunker, Arnie?”
He laughed.”I lost count.”
“How deep was the hole you were in, Arnie?”
“Damn deep, by the end.”
“How tough was the lie in there, Arnie?”
“Well, I wouldn’t say God couldn’t get it out. But He’d have had to throw it.”
It was funny. And it was sad. Arnold Palmer, The General, The King, would miss the cut at the British Open. Once upon a time, he put this tournament on the map. He won it in 1961. He won it in 1962. After that, more Americans followed. More top international players. It was re-established as a major event. Palmer did that.
And now, a bunker had kissed him goodby. No. That is not entirely true. He could have chipped out sideways from that trap, taken an easier route, one extra stroke. And he might still be playing today. But he wouldn’t be Arnold Palmer.
This is a man who 20 years ago, at the LA Open, hit an approach shot out of bounds into a fence. He took a penalty and came right back. Same club, same swing. Hook, out of bounds. Undaunted, did it again. Same club, same swing. Slice, out of bounds. Again. Hook, out of bounds. Again. Slice, out of bounds.
He finished with a 12 for that hole. A 12? Arnold Palmer? Yes. But he got it his way. “After the round, a reporter asked me how I’d scored a 12,” he recalled, grinning.
“I told him I missed a 20-foot putt for 11.” Embarrassments do happen Palmer’s hair is white now. He wears a hearing aid. He has not won a major championship in 23 years, but his presence is still enormous. Age can steal strength and accuracy. Not character.
“What is your realistic goal now at a major tournament?” a reporter asked.
“To win,” he snapped.
So if he went out Friday, at least he went out swinging. And swinging. Ten shots on one hole? Ten shots. Legends should be spared embarrassment, they should not be caught with their flies open, or with ketchup stains on their mouths. Legends should not have to endure 10 shots on one hole. But it happens.
So be it. When that horrible hole was over, Palmer tossed the ball to a kid in the crowd, moved on to the 15th, and made a birdie. And on the 16th, he made another, just for good measure. And when he walked off that last green, 11 over par, it was still to the same loud applause he has been hearing for more than three decades.
“Mr. Palmer,” a young Scottish reporter began, trying to make a joke, “do you think you’ll be out here at midnight, playing that 14th bunker over and over?”
“Nah,” said Palmer, rubbing a hand over his face, “the hell with it.” CUTLINE Arnold Palmer