Monday, March 29, 2010

Arnold Palmer Plays A Round in Tampa, 3/23/65

In February 1964, golfer Arnold Palmer went head-to-head with Jack Nicklaus in an exhibition at the Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club.This marked the first round of golf in Tampa for both of the legends.

Just over one year later on March 23, 1965, Palmer returned to the scene for another 18-hole exhibition, this time with rising star Juan Antonio "Chi-Chi" Rodriguez of Puerto Rico.

The 30-year-old from Rio Piedras already had developed somewhat of a history with Palmer. The two dueled to the finish in the 1964 Western Open, with Rodriguez finishing 16-under to beat Palmer by one stroke for the title. At that time, the Western Open represented Rodriguez's third win on the tour. By contrast, Palmer had already racked up 44 tour wins, seven of which were majors.

As Rodriguez played a practice round at Palma Ceia, Palmer competed in another exhibition with Gary Player at the Lake Region Country Club in Winter Haven and enjoyed a nice afternoon while shooting a 68.

While Palmer had relatively few concerns of his own, Rodriguez arrived in Tampa banged up and struggling with his game. A lingering hand injury from the 1964 Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas forced Rodriguez to wear a heavy leather device to give his thumb support.

Aside from some international tournaments, Rodriguez had only played three events stateside to start the year, and only had $1,000 ($6,782 in today's dollars) in winnings to show for it. He hoped the exhibition against Palmer could help kick-start his season and prepare him for the upcoming Masters.

As one might expect, Rodriguez spoke effusively about Palmer's influence on the sport.
"He's done more for the development of players than anyone in golf," Rodriguez said. "He's done more for golf in every way than anyone else."

Joining Palmer and Rodriguez was local pro and Tampa city champion Paul Tarnow Jr., a member of Palma Ceia who once shot a 64 at the club and most recently a 66. He figured to have somewhat of a home-course advantage - maybe against anyone other than Palmer.

On a warm, bright and windy day, about 1,400 spectators turned out at Palma Ceia for the golf exhibition. Those hoping to see Palmer at his finest were not disappointed. For anyone hoping to see a close match, well, there was always Palmer.

Palmer shot matching 34's on the front and back nine holes to register a 68 on the day. He improved by two strokes his 1964 outing of 70 against Nicklaus on the same course.
Rodriguez, whether due to his nagging injuries or just having an off day, never really found a groove. During his practice round at Palma Ceia, Rodriguez used an inflatable brace on his left elbow designed to keep his swing straight and reduce hooking the ball. Wearing the brace, Rodriguez posted a 70 on the course.

Because the brace could not be worn during tournament play, however, Rodriguez went without the brace and the results showed. He hooked two shots out of bounds, the first coming on the first hole, and quickly dropped too far behind Palmer to make a match of it.

Rodriguez finished with a 75 on the day, and needed two birdies on the final two holes to avoid an even worse fate. He might have even finished below Tarnow, who registered an uncharacteristic 78 on the afternoon.

"It was disappointing, I'll say that," Tarnow said after the match.

Palmer, however, offered some encouragement when he saw Tarnow struggling out on the course.

"We were walking down the fairway," Tarnow said, "and Palmer came over to me. He told me to slow up, quit rushing. He said Chi-Chi and he knew what I was going through. I did that and played better. He was real nice. Now, I wouldn't take anything for the experience."

As for Palmer and Rodriguez, it would not be long before the two met again. On April 25, Palmer avenged his Western Open setback to Chi-Chi, capturing the 1965 Tournament of Champions by three strokes over the runner-up Rodriguez. For Palmer, this came on the heels of a second-place finish at the Masters behind Nicklaus, and would be "The King's" sole tournament victory of 1965.

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