Palmer's final competitive round epitomizes career

If you're the sort who needs some measure of the competitor that is Arnold Palmer -- if, that is, you're like me, a person who never saw Palmer in his true prime -- then what you need to know is this: Not even his friends are sure.

Not even Palmer's closest allies can let themselves believe Palmer is done, as the 77-year-old legend said he was the other day. They've heard it before, after all. Arnold has groused and threatened; he has cut back his playing schedule; he has several times hinted that he could see the end of the road right in front of him.

But as Palmer's 40-year friend Doc Giffin told the Orlando Sentinel, "He's said, 'I'm going to, I want to, and I should,' but he's never flat-out said, 'I retire.' And I don't think that he ever will."

And that's what makes what happened last weekend in Texas so poignant and so real. And it is, in at least some fractional little way, a means of explaining to us ignoramuses what it is that our fathers see in Palmer that makes them speak of him -- still, right here, today -- with an awe that routinely crosses over into reverence.

It's hard to imagine that we will speak of any of our current superstars in such a way -- their games, sure, but their character? Then again, maybe that's just asking too much.

Palmer knew he was done during a tournament outside of Houston, and that was that. He couldn't hit a shot. His body was rebelling on him in about a thousand ways, large and small. The game had gotten hard. His gallery, Arnie's Army as it has been known for half a century, trailed around after him like a collective puppy, waiting for a pat on the head -- a rousing moment, a long putt, anything -- that Palmer couldn't deliver.

And Palmer knew he couldn't deliver. He knew it. So he did the only thing available to him: This legend, with a legacy of glittering championships and golden rounds and a sort of original rock star's existence in the sport, quit on the spot -- without ever letting on. He played the rest of his day as an exhibition, having withdrawn from the tournament mid-round. He no longer kept score, which for a competitive golfer is the emotional equivalent of driving the drink cart.

But he wouldn't walk off the course.

Let's stop there for a minute. Think about it: This is one of the proudest athletes on the planet, a man who guards his reputation in sports as fiercely as anyone this side of DiMaggio. It had to kill Palmer to stand over shot after shot, in pain, knowing that he couldn't do what his institutional memory said he should be able to do.

But, as he explained to his friend and playing partner Lee Trevino, Arnold would not bail out on the people who had come to see him. So Palmer the Legend was replaced on this Friday in Texas by Palmer the duffer. He played his round in the knowledge that he was calling it quits, and indeed already had done so. He sprayed shots around the course and allowed himself to suffer the relative humiliation of being loved for what he once was, not what he now appeared to be.

You know what that is? Transcendent, is what.

The great last act of athletes is almost always messy. A clean getaway might be the rarest feat in sports. And golf is such a trap in that regard; from the PGA to the Champions Tour, there really is no discernible finish line out there, certainly not for the immortal beloveds of the game. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus could play from their knees or in wheelchairs, and people still would line the fairways and crowd the greens to watch.

Nicklaus once said that, once his competitive days were done, he couldn't really see himself playing golf at all. He had played it at this one pitch all his life -- for bloodlust and money and titles and the thrill of hitting a perfect shot -- and he could not reconcile that with some semi-retirement walk around the grass. No, Jack figured, when he was done, he was done.

Arnold Palmer might or might not have ever even thought about that. All he knew, as he stood there on a Texas Friday in a tournament that, really, he was only playing because of a business tie-in, was that he no longer could approximate the man he had been on the course. And in that same moment, Palmer considered his debt to the game and to his fans, and he played on anyway. It was a small gesture. It only gets larger in the re-telling.

You'd love to believe they still make sports legends like that. At any rate, you figure Dad was probably on to something way back when, when he bored you to death with stories about Arnie and vowed that, no matter what Nicklaus accomplished, it had to be Palmer first and Jack second. That's brand loyalty. And it is, still, so richly earned.

Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days To Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland" will be published by HarperCollins on Jan. 23, 2007, and may be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Kreidler, a writer for the Sacramento Bee, can be reached at mkreidler@sacbee.com.