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Madden: For Palmer, writing was on the wall

Saturday, April 13, 2002

Imagine 83-year-old Ted Williams being transported to home plate in a wheelchair to take a swing for the Boston Red Sox. Or Frank Gifford, 71, hobbling through a pass pattern for the New York Giants. Or 63-year-old Bobby Hull weakly dribbling a slap shot for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Embarrassing, right?

It's really just another day in the life of professional golf.

Golf takes great pains to salute its legends, which is cool. But there's a fine line between paying tribute and being bizarre, and the Masters has shown that golf is too often on the wrong side of said line.

Witness 89-year-old Sam Snead -- just six weeks removed from having what his son called a ministroke -- taking the ceremonial first tee shot and hitting a spectator in the face with it. That pays tribute to nothing and no one. It makes a legend look like a doddering old fool who doesn't know when to quit.

Speaking of which, how about Arnold Palmer? Palmer, 72, retired from the Masters yesterday, prefacing his final round by saying "The writing was on the wall." Gee, no kidding? What was your first clue, Arnie? The 89 you shot Thursday? Or the similar scores you've been shooting for years? The writing has been on Palmer's wall for a decade. He just now got around to reading it. Maybe he got new bifocals.

I'm not trying to denigrate Palmer's legend. He might well be the greatest golfer of all time (save maybe Ty Webb). Four victories at the Masters speaks for itself.

But it's too bad Arnie hasn't been committed to protecting his legacy. Old-time golf devotees will remember Palmer for what he was. But a lot of younger fans who never saw Palmer in his prime will remember him for what he is. For what they've seen. And that's a shame.

The nostalgia boom in sports is fading. Interest in the PGA Senior Tour is negligible. The old stars need to pass the torch to the new stars. And the old stars can't truly do that unless they get out of the way.

Palmer had some of the biggest galleries at the Masters Thursday and yesterday. That's a tribute to his place in the game of golf.

But if Palmer hadn't been playing, those spectators would have found someone else to follow. Maybe a relevant golfer would have made some new fans. And the sport would have been healthier for it.

In other sports, legends show up for the occasional old-timers' day. They wave, laugh, sign autographs, play a game that is intentionally a charade, then do it again next year. That whets their appetites for attention and satiates the fans' desire to relive the good old days. The other sports have it right.

(Notable exception: Gordie Howe, 74, who regularly "comes out of retirement" to play in a competitive minor-league hockey game, thus becoming the only player to play in 32 decades or whatever. The last time Howe did that, I got the opposing team's goon on my radio show and put a bounty on Gordie's head. A hundred bucks of my own money to the first guy who really creams that punk. If Howe ever plays again, the offer still stands. Heck, make it a grand.)

The presence of Palmer and his fellow bent, withered old cronies in competitive golf is, unfortunately, often validated by current stars such as Tiger Woods, whom the media regularly cajoles into making laudatory statements about Palmer and his ilk. (Maybe some of the old-time golf writers should hang it up, too.) Sure, Woods props up Palmer's legend. Criticizing Arnie wouldn't be a good PR move.

But do you think guys such as Woods, David Duval, Phil Mickelson, etc., really want these silly senior citizens stirred into their mix? This is their time. Woods certainly isn't lacking for fame, but a legend's shadow can loom large over players a level or two lower.

(By the way, because Woods is too dominant, the only golfer worth rooting for is Mickelson, the PGA's real-life version of Kevin Costner's Roy McAvoy character in the movie "Tin Cup." Mickelson isn't afraid to risk losing a stroke if it might mean gaining a stroke. He gambles. That might be why Mickelson has never won a major, but it's exactly why I like him. Most of the other pros play the tee-to-green version of the neutral-zone trap.)

OK, so Palmer has quit the Masters. Good.

Golf's next move should be to take off the shackles. To let the game grow unimpeded. To let the younger guys take over the record book as well as the sport.

The PGA is reportedly considering making pros use a limited-flight ball. Why? So scores don't dip even lower? Scores should dip lower. I want to see somebody shoot a 36 someday.

When you combine better athletes with better equipment and the result is longer drives, more accurate putts and lower scores, that's called progress. Why would golf want to retard its own progress? No other sport does that. Well, OK, besides hockey.

Face it: Golf is intrinsically dumb. You hit a ball a long distance, then you go chase it.

There's no good reason to make it any dumber.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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