Palmer Couldnt Miss Return to Oakmont

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2007 U.S. OpenOAKMONT, Pa. -- This is no sentimental journey for Arnold Palmer, not like that 1994 U.S Open at Oakmont. There will be no teary-eyed farewells, no difficult walks up the 18th fairway with thousands chanting his name and reveling in his lifetime of accomplishment.
 
Then, a 64-year-old Palmer said goodbye to the U.S. Open and big-time golf as a player. On Wednesday, it was evident that Palmer -- the honorary chairman for this U.S. Open -- never plans to put Oakmont in his past.
 
Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer waves goodbye at the 1994 U.S. Open. (Getty Images)
Palmer has played the course for 66 years, or since he was a 12-year-old in 1941, and he has too much emotional attachment to and too many great memories of Oakmont to not be part of the course's special moments. Even if he never won an Open there, despite coming close in 1962 and 1973, even if he won't play this time.
 
'One of the proudest days of my life is when I came here at 12 years old and played golf. I enjoyed it then, and I've enjoyed it through the years,' Palmer said.
 
From the late 1950s until today, the 77-year-old Palmer has been Mr. Golf in Pittsburgh. No major championship there would be the same without the man whose come-from-behind charges and winning personality were greatly responsible for popularizing golf on television a half-century ago and building a legion of fans called Arnie's Army.
 
His popularity was so vast that it is believed the hundreds of millions of dollars he has made in commercial endorsements are the most of any sports figure in history.
 
At Oakmont, though, he enjoys being one of the guys, albeit one who has won 62 tournaments, including four Masters, two British Opens and the 1960 U.S. Open.
 
Palmer now splits his time between Florida and his Latrobe, Pa., hometown, spending three or four months a year up north. He plays golf a few times a week, not competitively and usually with friends, and can shoot his age only on a good day, even at home course Latrobe Country Club.
 
Of course, there are the occasional forays to events such as the recent White House dinner with Queen Elizabeth. Asked what the two discussed, Palmer deadpanned, 'Oh, her golf.'
 
'Actually, we talked about a couple of golf courses in Scotland that I have played and I remarked about how I thought the links courses in England and Scotland were very fun to play,' Palmer said. 'And she liked that.'
 
Palmer keeps tabs on the game, engaging this week in long talks with several in the U.S. Open field, including Phil Mickelson. Palmer doesn't know if Mickelson's wrist injury will hurt his chances but thinks that will be a bigger barrier to a fourth major than Mickelson's 18th-hole collapse at Winged Foot a year ago.
 
'I think he'll brush last year away and go into this tournament with the thought of winning,' Palmer said.
 
Palmer also doesn't dispute that Tiger Woods, who has looked confident and composed all week, should be the favorite, if not a prohibitive one.
 
'He still has to play the golf course,' Palmer said. 'He has to do the same as Joe Porridge who has never been here -- he has the same opportunity as Tiger Woods. And all he has to do is hit that ball in the right place, put it in the right place and then putt it in the hole. And they don't care what his name is.'
 
Palmer also suspects many in the 156-player field, only a few of whom have played Oakmont in competition, don't know what they're getting into on a course that not only has the fastest greens in golf but also has been lengthened and stripped of its trees since that 1994 U.S. Open, won by Ernie Els in a three-way playoff.
 
'I've talked to some of the guys that have been out there and I've talked to some of the former champions who have been out there, and they tell me this field -- and this is just an observation -- is not really ready for Oakmont,' Palmer said. 'That they haven't really learned yet how to play Oakmont. They may do that in the next couple of days, but this golf course takes a lot of thought, and someone who really gives it that thought would have a chance.'
 
And, by the way, what did he shoot during that initial round at age 12, when he played Oakmont at the invitation of Latrobe businessman Harry Saxman.
 
'I shot 78,' Palmer said, trying not break into a smile that would give away his not-so-honest answer. 'Hell, I don't know what I shot.'
 
Kind of like his rounds these days. For a change, Arnold Palmer no longer has to keep score at Oakmont.
 
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