ORLANDO, Fla. -- If a Mount Rushmore in golf existed, this particular pair would surely represent two of the four heads carved into the famously august cliffs.
So when Arnold Palmer, the man who truly put golf on the American sports map, talks about Tiger Woods, the guy who put golf in the toilet -- at least for now -- you can chisel the words in granite.
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Arnold Palmer Invitational
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Palmer, on hand as host this week of the invitational tournament named in his honor at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge, said Wednesday he was disappointed that Woods skipped his tournament, not to mention stunned that the world No. 1 will head to the Masters without any live rounds under his belt.
Palmer, 80, had made nary a public statement about the episodic Woods debacle of the past four months, yet on the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, he opened the door a crack and supplied some personal context to the scandal that rocked the sport to its grassroots.
No question, the two occupy opposite ends of the approbation scale at the moment, and had their polar roles been reversed, Palmer said he would have a difficult time coping with the fan enmity that has engulfed Woods. The most popular golfer of all time and a man who still commands considerable attention in the endorsement game because of his multi-generational appeal, Palmer said the feeling of being perceived as the bad guy between the ropes is hard for him to imagine.
Others over the years, including former rival Jack Nicklaus, have had to endure occasional taunts and barbs from fans who were pulling for the King. Given the levels of anger and betrayal in some fan quarters as a result of Woods' actions, it's a veritable certainty that at some point soon, the world No. 1 is going to get an earful.
Woods, to some, will be wearing a black hat for the first time in his career.
|Arnold Palmer gets a typically warm welcome during Wednesday's pro-am at Bay Hill. (AP)|
"But it is not something I would look forward to." Nobody is expecting Woods to be besieged by catcalls at the Masters, which begins April 8. But when he walks to the first tee, it would be a surprise if he's enveloped warmly. In fact, you might be able to hear the crickets chirping. Eventually, he's going to make an appearance at a more public event. Nobody knows what to expect.
In one of his brief TV interviews Sunday, Woods said, half in jest, that he hoped fans would at least applaud if he made a few birdies -- which dovetails nicely into another Palmer concern. Fact is, given that Woods hasn't hit a meaningful tournament shot since winning the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, it's hard to guess how many red numbers he will put on the Augusta National scoreboard.
While Palmer said he would never write off Woods' chances, he shook his head when asked if a long layoff -- the world No. 1 will not have played in 144 days -- is the best tack to take at a diabolical course like Augusta. One player, Ben Hogan, won the Masters when entering the event as his season opener.
"I can't fathom taking five months off and going to Augusta, unless you have to, unless circumstances make it that you have no choice," Palmer said.
Woods had other menu options, of course. He called Palmer on Monday night last week to explain that he wasn't going to defend his title at Bay Hill, where he has won six pro titles, including the past two in a row. Palmer, who wears hearing aids, said he had trouble understanding what Woods was saying and asked him to phone back again Tuesday morning.
Woods reiterated the news the next day and explained that he wasn't ready to play. Whether he'll have sufficiently knocked off the rust with practice rounds will be one of the many related storylines in two weeks.
"You can't get very sharp [by] not playing," Palmer said. "Even just practicing won't do it. I think to be sharp, you have to compete. You have to be in the mood to compete.
"Now, you can say a couple of weeks, that would be one thing. But five months, you know ...."
Palmer dominated in an era when off weeks were less prevalent among star players, and said he "played, generally, right up to the edge," at the majors.
It worked. Like Woods, Palmer has four Masters titles. Only Nicklaus, with six, has more green jackets. "We would usually start in January and play up until September, and if we had any special events I would play them," he said. "Then from usually the end of September to the middle of October, until the first of the year, I didn't play very much. Occasionally I would go to Pinehurst or come down here [to Orlando].
"That was probably the longest period I ever took off -- and I tried to play even then. That would be a couple of months, maybe.
"My thoughts always have been, particularly in my really active days, to play right up to it, unless I was tired. Sometimes you get a little beat up and feel like you need a week off or something. For the best part I played right up to the event."
Sage that he is, Palmer mostly steered clear of offering any criticism or commentary on the headline-grabbing actions of Woods and said the latter did not solicit any advice from his longtime Orlando neighbor on how to weather the ensuing storm.
Like a legion of others, including many fans and media critics, Palmer noted that the best way for Woods to put the scandal behind him is to stop hiding from it.
With a storyline that's four months old and still percolating, Woods has answered questions for a grand total of 11 minutes, and even then he declined to comment on a couple of the hot-button details.
"I think it's up to him to do and say whatever he feels he needs to do to redeem the situation, put it in the proper place," Palmer said. "My opinion, as I said, I was going to keep to myself.
"But I suppose the best thing he could do would be open up and just let you guys shoot at him. And that's just my thought."
A day earlier, as he stood outside near the putting green at Bay Hill, Palmer was asked about how much the media game has changed since his era. Woods has endured scrutiny unlike any other player, past or present.
"It was easy," Palmer said of his day in the sun, "and I enjoyed it, and the item of being private didn't really ever enter into it. They gave me the time I needed to be private."
Despite their comparable places in the sport's pantheon, the public personas of Woods and Palmer could hardly be more different. Palmer has always been friendly with the fans and openly courted interaction with the press corps, his conduit to the people. By and large, Woods has often been bland, suspicious and paranoid.
Palmer felt that as a public person, scrutiny comes with the territory.
"Hey, when you come out here and walk on that putting green as a competitor," he said, pointing at the cadre of PGA Tour players nearby, "you have given these people a little bit of you. That's part of the game. That's the way it is.
"If you don't think that, then you end up in trouble."