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Par Just a Number in the Game

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Arnold Palmer can change the par at his golf course. He can't change what he said 47 years ago.
One of the most famous exchanges with Palmer happened in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, when he was seven shots behind going into the final round. Speaking with Pittsburgh sports writer Bob Drum, Palmer wondered what would happen if he drove the green on the first hole and went on to shoot 65.
'It would give me 280,' Palmer told him. 'Doesn't 280 always win the Open?'
What Palmer would have said today is, 'It would give me even par. Doesn't even par always win the Open?'
Par has been a fixation in this country for more than 50 years, dating to 1951 when two par 5s were converted to par 4s at Oakland Hills and the U.S. Open played as a par 70. Ben Hogan won and later said he was glad he brought 'this monster' to its knees.
Would he have said the same if he had finished at 1-under 287 instead of 7-over 287?
It's all about perception.
'We can get caught up too much in numbers,' Ben Crenshaw said Monday. 'You still add up your score at the end of the round. And they're still going to give the trophy away to the guy with the lowest score.'
That's worth noting because twice in the last three weeks on the Florida swing, the courses have played as a par 70. Mark Wilson won the four-man playoff at the Honda Classic after finishing at 5-under 275 at PGA National, which sounds like a more grueling week than if they had finished at 13-under 275.
Now, Palmer has converted Nos. 4 and 16 at Bay Hill into par 4s, and it will play as a par 70 for the first time.
'I did it just to make the golf course a little more competitive to par,' Palmer said.
What he really meant was that he was tired of seeing the world's best players reach the green in two with a 5-iron in their hands, and this was the most cost-effective way of restoring the challenge.
Or at least making it feel like a challenge.
Take two weeks ago at the Honda Classic. The four players had to return Monday morning to resume the playoff on the 10th hole, which had been converted to a par 4 at more than 500 yards, a slight breeze working against them. Wilson isn't a big hitter and had a fairway metal left for his second shot. Camilo Villegas is a power player and hit 4-iron.
If it had been slightly longer as a par 5, Wilson would have laid up and Villegas could have reached in two.
Power always has been an advantage in golf.
More than anything, changing par matters more in the head than on the card.
'You're more bummed making a 5 on a par 5 than a par 4,' Mark Calcavecchia said. 'If they change it into a par 4 and you make 5, you figure you're not the only guy making bogey. It's a head game.'
Todd Hamilton might have the best solution. The former British Open champion would like to see only one number on the signs at every tee, and that would be to identify what hole you're playing.
'Get rid of the par. Get rid of the yardage,' he said. 'Go play the course.'
In some respects, Palmer is going back to the old days. Bay Hill used to be a par 71, with Nos. 4 and 16 as par 4s and the opening hole as a par 5. Over time, No. 1 went to a 4, while the other two were lengthened and became par 5s.
Joey Sindelar has played Bay Hill every year since 1984, and he can recall when the 16th was a par 4. He has seen that hole play as one of the toughest and one of the easiest, even though all that matters is the number he writes down.
'We do it to ourselves,' Sindelar said. 'We could play No. 16 as a par 5 and think, 'I might eagle this.' But if it's a par 4 and a little closer, we wouldn't go in there thinking birdie. There's just something about what the course scorecard says that changes your attitude and your expectations.'
One mentality that will change at Bay Hill is the finish -- but again, that relates only to par.
If a player was trailing by one shot coming down the stretch, the last reasonable place to make up ground was the 16th. Find the fairway and you would have a shot at reaching in two and make birdie at worst.
'I thought 16 was a great swing hole,' Trevor Immelman said. 'You have to hit the fairway, and then you might have a mid-iron to the green. And if you miss the fairway and lay up, you could spin the ball off the green and then you could make bogey. I felt like it was such a great hole coming to the end of the tournament.'
Augusta National is partly responsible for keeping score with par. Former chairman Clifford Roberts came up with that idea for the 1960 Masters, so that scores could be shown on a cumulative basis.
The USGA gets most of the credit (or blame) for the value of par, for no other organization changes more courses to par 70s, and it was a badge of honor that no one had won in double digits under par until Tiger Woods (12 under) at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which played as a par 71 for the first time.
'I do think there's a school of thought out there that the USGA is fixated on par,' Fay said Tuesday. 'We're not fixated on par, but we like the idea that par is a good score.'
The argument has been that some greens -- whether it was the 16th at Bay Hill or the 17th at Olympic Club -- were not designed to hold an approach shot with a long iron or worse.
Tom Meeks, who set up U.S. Open courses for 10 years, once told of a confrontation he had with the late Payne Stewart over changing the 16th hole at Pinehurst No. 2 into a par 4. Stewart argued that the green was not designed for a long iron.
'Tell you what, Payne,' Meeks told him. 'We'll move the tee back and make it 530 yards if you promise you and everyone else won't go for the green in two.'
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