Is it odd for one of your favorite shots in PGA Tour history to come at the hands of a player trying to break 80 just minutes before he misses the cut on a Friday afternoon in March? That’s simplifying the circumstances, of course, but Arnold Palmer’s shot on the 18th hole of the 2004 Arnold Palmer Invitational is seared into memory. I did not get to watch Palmer play golf in his prime, so this what I’m stuck with mostly — highlights from that prime and moments from the end of his career. I’m glad I got the latter, at least, and each year the PGA Tour makes its annual stop at Bay Hill is an occasion to re-heat this highlight.
I’ve watched it a dozen times again this week. Here it is, followed by a few words about why I find it so captivating and will never turn down the chance to watch it one more time when it’s put in front of me. Let’s go to the archives:
- Arnold Palmer’s last swing in his own tournament was a driver off the deck. There is no better way to go out.
- It’s a great shot! Take away the 74-year-old legend holding the club. Imagine some young player this week hitting a low burner around a hazard to take the slope of the green for a birdie putt. It would be erotic, generate a round of exclamatory tweets, and might be the highlight of the week. The shot, on its own, is worth drooling over forever before we get to the context of who hit it and when.
- The Polish poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec famously wrote, “Youth is a gift of nature but age is a work of art.” An older Arnold Palmer in a four-button polo is a work of art. No man ever looked better in the four-button, and Palmer arguably looked his best in it when he was seasoned. That’s what he often wore in public on the golf course and it did nothing to dispel the notion that he was one of the smoothest people to ever walk the earth, in the past when he was younger and the present at an advanced age. Others would look dopey, or just plain old, with a placket that glimpses the navel. He’s the rare exception makes you want to trade years for looking that cool and care-free in old age.
- The joy is undiluted on his face after the shot settles and he starts walking with his caddie, his grandson Sam Saunders. His grin makes you start grinning. I imagine this is the face a bank robber makes to a co-conspirator in the getaway car when the instant dangers have subsided and they think they’ve pulled it off.
- At the 2015 Masters, there was word that Palmer was having shoulder problems and might not hit the ceremonial tee shot alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. When Golf Channel’s Steve Sands asked him if he’d be there and actually make a swing, an indignant Palmer responded “You’re damn right I am.” I have to imagine there was a similar indignation if his caddie suggested any other play. And I like to think no other play was even proposed.
- Palmer is mythologized as this aggressive gambler, who would try any shot from any spot. That maybe lost him championships he should have on the resume. The resume is just a piece of paper with a tally. Sometimes the pictures matter more and driver off the deck, instead of a couple safer, shorter shots around the water and up to the green, was the congruous play for Palmer to finish his career at Bay Hill. It still would have been the appropriate play if it went in the water or finished nowhere near the green.
- A 74-year-old shot 88-79 to miss the cut by miles but no one remembers the scores. They rightly remember the last shot. One of the very best things about golf is that you — and you are not Arnold Palmer with four green jackets in the closet — can play poorly or below what you expect of yourself and have one shot or moment that sticks with you, far beyond the score on paper. One pured shot amidst a horrible number can still have you walking into the clubhouse happy as a pig in shit. Palmer obviously had nothing to prove on a golf course and didn’t need this shot to go well. But it’s illustrative of the micro moments in golf that keep you coming back.
- This is not some original thought, but just a reminder that the moments that defy the expectations are always among the best in sports. The Cavs coming back from 3-1 on a 73-win Warriors team is more memorable than some drab, predictable Kevin Durant title. Vince Carter is 42 years old and still dunking in NBA games. Those dunks are not as good as his dunks in his 20s. But the fact he’s still doing it is more significant than just another tomahawk from a current 20-something in the league. A 74-year-old Arnold Palmer should not be able to put it pin-high from 230 yards out with water all around the green. But he tried and succeeded and now we have this highlight forever.