Palmer bids graceful goodbye to St. Andrews at British Open

One last time . . . Arnold Palmer cast quite the shadow at St. Andrew's Wednesday.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — For so much of Wednesday the atmosphere at the 144th British Open, so festive, had been overmatched by the weather, so cruel.

Cold and raw, rain pelting down, then subsiding to a steady mist, only to stream down again. Gray one moment, even more gray the next, it was a day devoid of color, any semblance of enthusiasm, and certainly thrills. To hold out any hope for a change of mood, one needed a strong core of faith, the sort that Bill Rogers embodies and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he paid witness to a magical transformation of nature right there on an iconic stage known as the Old Course.

Miserable and uncomfortable was the weather, but after Arnold Palmer walked gingerly to the first tee, it was if from above the command came to turn on the warmth. Take it not from these eyes, but from a witness who has a spiritual soul.

“First and foremost,” Bill Rogers said, “I’d like to say that it’s probably no accident that the Lord kind of changed favor on the day we just had when Arnold Palmer decided he was going to play and hit a shot. Then, the sun shined through.

“It was special.”

Special, it was, and emotional, too, because while it was widely known that Palmer was in St. Andrews, whispers started circulating Wednesday morning that The King would not play in the Champion Golfers’ Challenge. At 85, Palmer is clearly having trouble walking, bothered by a painful hip, and when he hit the ceremonial opening tee shot at the Masters in April, he conceded that it was the first golf ball he had hit in months.

But this was to be his farewell to St. Andrews, a place that in many ways is as crucial to his legend as is Augusta National. In 1960, Palmer had won the Masters and U.S. Open and deemed it important to go to St. Andrews and win the British Open. He created talk of a “Grand Slam” for the first time and oh, how he came agonizingly close to a third straight major. He lost by one to Kel Nagle, but remained smitten with the challenge. When he won the Claret Jug in 1961 and 1962, he brought this championship back into prominence and never has the British golf citizenry forgotten.

He is of America, but they love their royalty here, so Palmer is a king to them, too.

“My, God, look at this. Isn’t that great?” Gary Player said as he stood near the 18th green of the Old Course and watched his friend take his final bow on the most hallowed golf turf we know. Packed grandstands behind the 18th green roared, as did packed grandstands to the right of the first tee. Just as fans had cheered along the second hole, out at the 17th green, and from along Links Way to the right of 18 fairway.

“And he loves it. He really loves it,” Player said with a brilliant smile.

Palmer, Player, Rogers and 25 other winners of the Claret Jug had just taken part in a four-hole Champion Golfers’ Challenge. It’s a special part of every British Open at the Old Course, but this was ratcheted up 10 degrees; it was likely Palmer’s final appearance here and while it may not have matched the fervor which resonated that October day in 1958 when Bobby Jones was honored as a Freeman of the City of St. Andrews, it surely was emotional and heartfelt.

“I was in tears going down the first fairway,” said Cori Britt, who as he always is was by Palmer’s side. He works within the business empire that revolves around being Arnold Palmer, but Britt will carry the golf bag whenever the boss asks. These ceremonial days included, and so there was Britt on the first tee setting the bag down, then watching Palmer safely negotiate a drive smack in the middle of the fairway.

How far? Forever, it ran, thanks to that patented right-to-left sling. How’s that? And if you were to be told that Palmer followed with a crisp iron to 6 feet and a center-cut birdie putt, you would want to believe it with every ounce of your heart. You know you would.

“It’s amazing to see a great champion like that,” Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open Champion, said. “You don’t really expect them to grow old. You always can envision them the way they played the game, which makes it more special for him to come back and do this. That’s why he stands out to everyone else.”

Off in the last of the seven pairings, Palmer walked some of the way after taking just two shots and rode in a buggy at other stretches. Rogers, Darren Clarke, and Paul Lawrie were also in the pairing and three groups ahead, Ernie Els felt blessed to be alongside another legend, Peter Thomson, five times an Open Champion.

Thompson will turn 86 Aug. 23, nearly three weeks later Palmer will reach that same birthday. Els cherishes the relationship he has had with both icons.

“Peter was my captain on the Presidents Cup in the mid-1990s, but he was a lot different today,” Els said. “He even said it. He’s had a pacemaker put in, he’s had some surgery. He even said to me, he can feel now he’s running out of time.

“That gives you chills, doesn’t it? These legends who have done so much for the game. But you can’t stop time.”

Chills, yes. Stopping time, no. That’s why the reality — cold as it may seem — surfaces whenever players are in the company of Palmer. He told reporters later that he only wishes it were 1960 all over again. Players said they only wish to make every moment in Palmer’s company count.

So Justin Leonard and David Duval talked eloquently about Palmer when their participation in the team exhibition was over, and Rogers gave thanks over and over again. In another lifetime, Rogers was a world-class golfer who shot 72-66-67-71 to win the 1981 British Open at Royal St. George’s. But the grind of Tour life never agreed with him, so he stopped and settled down and lived a club pro’s life.

But what has always been at the heart of the man has been his gentle spirit, an inner faith. So after Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, announced to the thousands still in attendance that there had been a four-way tie in the Champion Golfers’ Challenge “but Team Palmer is declared the winner,” roars erupted once again and Rogers smiled.

He had seen a cold and raw day turn warm and sunny and Rogers didn’t care if it sounded hokey. In is mind, The King’s farewell to the Old Course, to the Home of Golf, had prompted the powers above to envelope the stage in a relentless beauty.

“I’ll never forget this day and just knowing the idea that he may not be here in 2021 (when next the 150th British Open will be held St. Andrews),” Rogers said. “I don’t take anything for granted. It’s a happy day.”

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