Arnold Palmer was the best player in the game in April of 1964. He was so far ahead of the field when he stood on the 72nd tee at Augusta he asked playing partner Dave Marr if there was anything he could do to help. ‘Yeah’ said Marr, ‘make a 12.’
When he walked off the final green of the 1964 Masters not a single person watching thought it would be Palmer’s final triumph in a major championship. He was thirty-four years old.
Almost twenty years later on Royal Birkdale’s brutal 18th hole Tom Watson hit one of the great two iron shots into the 72nd green to win The Open Championship by a shot. He and Seve Ballesteros, who had earlier in the season won at Augusta, were the best players in the game and Watson at thirty-three was at the peak of his powers. It was assumed it was only a matter of time before he passed Harry Vardon and Peter Thomson and took his sixth Open. Instead like Palmer before him it would be the last of his major wins.
Then, five Opens later at Lytham Ballesteros played perhaps his greatest round. Out with Nick Faldo and Nick Price he shot the most beautifully perfect 65. Surely there would be more, and he did come close again as did Palmer and Watson but Lytham was his last great moment at thirty-one.
Finally there is Tiger Woods and the enduring image of him holing that last extraordinary putt across the bumpy 18th green at Torrey Pines to tie Rocco Mediate in the 2008 U.S Open. It took an extra day and an eighteen-hole playoff but Tiger passed Bobby Jones and won his fourteenth major championship. Nicklaus was only four majors away and surely his record would be reached and then passed? He was thirty-three years old.
This week Woods walked off the 36th green at Chambers Bay having shot 80 and 76 and his game is the butt of jokes. Everyone has an opinion on his swing and what he should do from here. Does he go out and play week after week as he did at the end of 1996 when he only had three months to make enough money to earn an exemption for the 1997 season? He took care of that problem by winning two of the seven events he played.
Does he walk away from the tour and reflect on a career guaranteed to see him ranked as one of the greatest four players ever? Being seen in the same company as Nicklaus, Jones and Ben Hogan is seriously awesome. He has nothing left to prove.
Or does he head to the range and beat balls until, hopefully, it comes back?
For all the expert and non-expert theories only he knows what his swing feels like and only he knows what goes through his head it the critical second from takeaway to impact. Only Ian Baker-Finch knew what he was feeling and thinking when he stood on the tee with the driver but he went from being one of the most reliable drivers in the game to one of the worst. It’s the yips and they drove Baker-Finch and Ballesteros from the tour. No one can play this game if they can’t put the ball into play. Palmer and Watson never lost the driver. Rather their issues came at the other end of the hole with the shortest club in the bag.
Whatever Woods does and wherever he goes with his game it seems he too had his last great day before his 35th birthday. Amazingly Hogan, who struggled for years with the game, won his first major championship at thirty-three.
Maybe the pressure of being at the top of the game for a prolonged period simply wears you out? Maybe Jones understood that when he retired at twenty-eight?
Jack Nicklaus remains the extraordinary benchmark. What a player he was.