Notebook: Celebrating the last victories for Palmer, Wright

Arnold Palmer sails his visor into the crowd at the 18th green at Bermuda Dunes after knocking in a birdie putt that clinched victory for him on Feb. 11, 1973 in the Bob Hope Desert Golf Classic.

Arnold Palmer sails his visor into the crowd at the 18th green at Bermuda Dunes after knocking in a birdie putt that clinched victory for him on Feb. 11, 1973 in the Bob Hope Desert Golf Classic.

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As nostalgia goes, it might not stir the emotions like the 50th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus’ first Masters triumph or the 100th of Francis Ouimet’s historic U.S. Open triumph – both of which arrive in 2013.

But remembering what happened 40 years ago is a warm way of passing the winter time as many of us await the arrival of the golf scene. Next Monday will mark the 40th anniversary of Arnold Palmer’s last victory on the PGA Tour and if that isn’t a somber thought, then consider that the 40th anniversary of Mickey Wright’s final LPGA Tour win will arrive April 15.

You could say that The King and The Queen of pro golf bid farewell to the stage within weeks of each other, given that they were 42 and 38, respectively, at the time and never did get much of a chance at the brass ring after that. Understandable, too, given their longtime commitment to the game and the wear and tear of travel that made it difficult to sustain excellence by the time 1973 rolled around.

When he teed it up at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973, Palmer hadn’t won in two years. Wright came out of semi-retirement to tee it up in the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winner’s Circle, though her victory drought was at four seasons.

Somehow, both icons recaptured a little magic within weeks of each other.

If it was going to happen anywhere for Palmer, the desert figured to be the spot. The late comedian Bob Hope might have put his name on the tournament, but Palmer applied the seal of legitimacy, winning the debut in 1960, then again in ’62, ’68 and ’71. Yet even with that history on his side, Palmer was hardly the pick to win, especially when Jack Nicklaus, by then clearly the planet’s best golfer, opened with a 64, seven better than the King.

But Palmer whittled into the deficit with a second-round 66, then added a third-round 69. At 206, he trailed Nicklaus and Allen Miller by one.

Miller stayed tied for the lead after 72 holes, only it was Johnny, not Allen. With a blistering fourth-round 63 – a number he would famously shoot at the U.S. Open four months later – Johnny Miller was at 273, tied with Nicklaus. Palmer’s long comeback continued with a 68; he was at 274.

If it was a great made-for-TV moment, the weather didn’t cooperate. There was heavy rain and for Palmer there was another letdown: The absence of his usual Hope partner back then, Vice President Spiro Agnew. “I’m sorry I couldn’t play, but Bob Hope says my not playing was part of the cease-fire,” Agnew quipped to reporters, a reference to the Jan. 28 order for the troops engaged in Vietnam.

Still, Palmer saved his best for last and in doing so, fired up people’s spirits. The horrendous putting woes that had plagued him most of 1972 and early in ’73 incredibly disappeared at a place where he often found peace. When he opened with a birdie and Nicklaus three-putted the sixth, Palmer seized the lead, and at the turn he was in front by two.

Palmer saved par from 9 feet at the 16th, Nicklaus missed a 3-foot birdie try, and so in a pouring rain, it was left for the King to hold on. Recalling the days of his '60s magic, he did just that. Though Nicklaus reached the 18th at Bermuda Dunes in two to set up an eagle try and Palmer had to play it as a three-shotter, things worked in the crowd favorite’s favor. Nicklaus burned the cup with his 18-foot eagle bid, but Palmer – wearing tinted glasses but having chucked his rainsuit – knocked down a 7-footer for birdie, then turned and heaved his visor.

Familiar? Oh, how it brought back memories, even if the check ($32,000) sounds like nothing today. It was something exciting, with Palmer calling his closing 69 in the slop “one of my best finishing rounds.”

That it came at the expense of the arch-rival, Nicklaus, and the rising stud, Johnny Miller, who also shot 72 to tie for second, made it all the sweeter. It was Palmer’s 62nd career victory, and though no one knew it at the time, it would be the last.

No one was looking for a similar storyline two months later when the women gathered in that same locale, but they got it thanks to Wright, who at that point in her career was not enthralled with competition.

“She had given it her all for so long, both through her game and through the effort she had put forth in public relations on behalf of (the women’s) tour,” said Rhonda Glenn, whose knowledge of the women’s golf scene is second to none. “(I think) she was weary of it.”

Yet Wright decided to tee it up, probably to thank the late Dinah Shore, who was to women’s golf what Hope was to the men’s game. Though the tournament wasn’t yet designated a major, “the Shore” in 1973 offered the biggest purse. The only thing is, it didn’t appear as if Wright was in position to claim the top prize; with rounds of 71-74-71, the greatest women’s player of them all trailed unheralded Joyce Kazmierski by a whopping five strokes.

What appeared to be a stunning upset – Kazmierski had not won in her six years on tour; Wright owned 81 championships – morphed into a dramatic rally. Wright went out in 32 to pull even with Kazmierski, who would add bogeys at the 15th, 16th and 18th holes at Mission Hills Golf & Country Club. It was more of an opening than Wright needed, though she certainly ended in style: a 25-foot snake of a putt at the final hole for birdie and a round of 68. She finished two clear of Kazmierski and embraced yet another piece of championship hardware, which came with a check for $25,000 that dwarfed anything the Hall of Famer had ever earned.

Before her magical finish at the 1973 “Shore,” Wright’s biggest check had been for $2,625.

So if it was going to be her final win – and no one could have known that at the time – give the lady credit. Her finale came with massive style points, befitting her talents.

• • •

NICE PLAYING, BUT NOW IT'S MY TURN: Tiger Woods in San Diego, Phil Mickelson in Scottsdale. You can probably feel the warmth of the shining smiles coming from Ponte Vedra Beach because let’s face it: having your crowd-pleasing 1-2 punch win on consecutive weeks is good for business.

Just don’t think it’s out of the ordinary.

Fact is, this dynamic duo has gotten pretty good at this. It’s the ninth time the Woods-Mickelson tandem has won tournaments in consecutive weeks. The first time it happened might still be the most memorable, way back in 2000 when Woods was up to his usual stuff – that is, chasing history.

Having stormed to victory at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – the Monday finish where he came from seven back with seven to play and overtook Matt Gogel – Woods had won six consecutive starts dating to 1999. Once the media came out of shock up on the peninsula, they traveled hours south to set up camp at Torrey Pines to see if Woods could continue his march toward what is considered an unbeatable PGA Tour record: 11 consecutive wins by Byron Nelson.

It was not to be. Mickelson saw to that. He opened with a 66 to lead Woods by five and ended up finishing at 18 under. Woods finished joint second, four back.

Later that summer, Mickelson won at Colonial, Woods the very next week at the Memorial. And they have continued this “you win, I’ll win” dance thusly:

2002: Woods wins the U.S. Open, Mickelson captures the Canon Greater Hartford Open.

2005: Mickelson’s win at the PGA is followed by Woods’ win at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

2007: A rather robust year for the lads. Woods won at Wachovia, Mickelson followed at The Players Championship. Later in the summer, Mickelson took the Deutsche Bank Championship while Woods followed with wins at the BMW and Tour Championship.

2008: Mickelson took the title at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera, and Woods conquered the WGC-Accenture Match Play the very next week.

2009: Woods won the BMW, Mickelson the Tour Championship.

2013: It’s been a while, but Woods’ win in San Diego is trumped by Mickelson in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Quality stuff, for sure. Much better than a trio of Woods wins in 1999 that were followed by victories by Ted Tryba, Carlos Franco and Brian Henninger.

• • •

HE WILL TRY TO DOUBLE THE FUN: So, onward Mickelson will go on his annual West Coast jaunt, always committed to playing a heavy load in his favorite part of the world. (Exorbitant taxes notwithstanding.) But if he were to win this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – and remember, he won this thing a year ago, for the fourth time, no less – it wouldn’t be unprecedented.

Twice Mickelson has won tournaments in consecutive weeks, including 2005 when he did the Scottsdale/Pebble quinella. In 2006, Mickelson followed a win at the BellSouth Classic with his second green jacket at the Masters.

• • •

A CLOSING NINE OF THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS: Random musings . . .

• Do I have this right? USGA officials take three decades to change something they said was wrong – anchoring – but then say it will take them three years to implement the new rule? Then they have the audacity to say everyone else is creating havoc with slow play?

• The greatest collection of winners in a decade for a major championship? No contest, it’s the Open Championship from the 1970s. What’s not to love about Jack Nicklaus (1970) being followed by Lee Trevino, Trevino again, then Tom Weiskopf, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Watson, Nicklaus and a guy named Seve Ballesteros.

• So, Wayne Gretzky is in the celebrity field for this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am? Sounds like Dustin Johnson has a partner.

• He has made 85 birdies in 15 rounds thus far, has shot in the 60s 12 of those times and already has recorded a third and two seconds in just four starts. But what does it tell us to know that Brandt Snedeker ranks 151st in the “average going for it shot distance” with 263.3 yards? Well, I’m thinking it tells us that there must be a “Little To Do” department to even think that the world needs statistical date on “average going for it shot distance.”

• Pretty sure that’s Justin Rose I see in my crystal ball who is winning a major this year.

• All right, back to slow play: It exists. We know that. So no more pontificating about how it’s a problem. Enough already. Offer a solution that can work effectively, complete with clarity and definitive framework.

• Doesn’t it feel as if we missed the Rory McIlroy retirement announcement? Come on, kid, tee it up.

• Another slow-play point: Love how the media put the blame on today’s players who “over-analyze every shot.” Then they go the air with 17 of their colleagues for six hours to analyze the day’s golf action.

• Seems to me that Denver’s Rahim Moore should have been named the Ravens’ Super Bowl MVP.

• • •

SNIPPETS OF A SPECIAL DAY: Three cool moments that linger from Sunday’s heavyweight gathering at a pro-am in Palm City, Fla., to benefit the Devon D. Quigley Special Needs Trust:

1. For most of the morning a helicopter sat inconspicuously some 200 yards from the 18th green at The Floridian Golf Club. (At least as inconspicuously as a helicopter can be.) As he played the final hole with his group, Jack Nicklaus took note that the helicopter had liftoff and he wondered aloud who was in it. Turns out it was the guy who played in the group right in front of Nicklaus. “Arnold Palmer,” he was told. Nicklaus smiled, then giggled. Indeed, The King had left the building.

2. Players were told to head to their carts, that the pro-am was about to begin. Within minutes, the practice area was cleared, dozens of golfers having vanished. Save for two, that is – Nicklaus was still on the putting green, Bernhard Langer remained hitting balls. Since they were each in the “B” group off of their respective tees, they were putting a few extra minutes to good use.

3. Mark Calcavecchia acknowledged the gathering of major winners and Hall of Famers who attended and shook his head, saying that many of them traveled to Palm City on their own money. He quickly conceded that for him, it was an easy jaunt up I-95 from his home in West Palm Beach, then added: “But if I lived in Seattle and got the call, it would have taken me four seconds to pack and get down here.”

• • •

SO MUCH FOR FRIENDLY CONFINES: Home cooking isn’t the secret ingredient all the time. Consider that a healthy list of players who call, or have called, the Scottsdale, Ariz., area their home weren’t around for the weekend action in the Waste Management Phoenix Open. J.B. Holmes, Geoff Ogilvy, Kevin Streelman, Martin Kaymer, Charlie Beljan, Ricky Barnes and Pat Perez missed the cut.

• • •

THE LOWDOWN ON THE EARLY GOING: For those who dream of playing on the PGA Tour, you had better be able to go lower than low – especially on the West Coast swing.

How explosive is the early going and how aggressive do you have to be? Consider that at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Cameron Tringale shot in the 60s all four days – and finished in a share of 43rd. That’s right, 69-67-69-69 doesn’t get you what it used to, though we’re not suggesting $19,881 is something to sneeze at.

Of course, it was even more outrageous at the Humana Challenge, where 30 players went for four rounds in the 60s. There, D.A. Points put up 67-69-69-69 and finished joint 63rd.

One guy who clearly understands this landscape is Charles Howell III. Nice start to the season for him, no question. He has been par-or-better in all 16 rounds thus far, totaling 60 under, which is terrific play. But the Sony-Humana-Farmers-Waste Management stretch is one he has zeroed in; he was par or better in 15 of his 16 rounds a year ago, shooting a combined 31 under.

• • •

SHORT SHOTS: In search of a place to play, given that he has lost his exempt status on the PGA Tour, Rich Beem finished T-15 in India in a European Challenge Tour tournament. Former U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein was T-18. . . . Howell will skip this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, sit back, and study the world rankings. Things would seem to be in his favor for his first return to the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship since 2008, since he sits 63rd and this is the final week to qualify. The top 64 earn spots, but there always figures to be one or two withdrawals. Howell has played in just one WGC since 2009. . . . Some serious international flavor already has chosen to bypass the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel and Padraig Harrington are signed on for the Malaysian Masters on March 21-24. Donald hasn’t played Bay Hill since 2008; Schwartzel hasn’t broken 70 in eight rounds there and is a cumulative 7 over.

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