ARNOLD PALMER ALWAYS has belied his age with a sharpness of mind and a physical well-being of someone much younger. Monday evening there seemed to be an extra spring in his step.
Palmer, 80, was particularly excited to talk about Rory McIlroy, the fresh-faced rookie on the PGA Tour, and the impact of his Quail Hollow Championship victory over the weekend in Charlotte. Palmer said McIlroy, who could not legally celebrate the win with a toast of champagne until he turned 21 on Tuesday, infuses new energy into the sport.
Palmer did not say it, but his underlying message was that McIlroy's win could not have come at a better time.
When Palmer arrived for the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association annual gathering, reporters' questions centered on the wave of young golfers who are moving center stage on the PGA Tour. More importantly, questions about Tiger Woods and his off-course and on-course foibles were asides to the subject at hand.
"A lot of things are happening right now, and what I've seen over the last weekend is pretty encouraging," Palmer said. "To see a young man come on like he did at Charlotte was pretty fantastic. It was just great that he did what he did."
What McIlroy did was hold off the old guard of Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera and Padraig Harrington with a 66 on Saturday, then left the trio in his wake with a course-record 62 on Sunday.
The most poignant moment came shortly after McIlroy rolled in a 42-foot birdie putt on the final hole, then stood with his caddy and giggled like the 20-year-old he was.
The youthful exuberance provided a stark contrast to the Masters two weeks earlier, when Mickelson's win carried a somber tone with the appearance on Sunday of his cancer-stricken wife. Then there is the Woods tale that has hovered over the PGA Tour all season like a stalled storm front.
That was before McIlroy came to the rescue and became the youngest winner of a PGA Tour event since, you guessed it, Woods 14 years ago.
"I think it could have a very positive affect on the game, the fact that he is a fresh, young face coming on," Palmer said of McIlroy. "That will encourage people, and a few more of these young guys coming along will help it a lot."
Among the young, rising stars are Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler and Dustin Johnson, all of whom are younger than Palmer was when he to take the golf world by storm in 1955. At 25, Palmer captured the Canadian Open, the first of 62 PGA Tour titles that included seven majors.
Palmer's route to professional golf took him through four years at Wake Forest and three in the U.S. Coast Guard. It is a different path than those made by pro golfers today. While American golfers might first play collegiately, it appears more and more foreign players are jumping directly from the prep ranks to the pro circuits.
"That was my get-ready period to play the tour," Palmer said of his college and military days. "Whether it was necessary or not, I don't know. I felt pretty good about the way I did it, and I had an opportunity to do all the things I wanted to do as a young person, too."
He looks to a couple of his grandsons as examples of how it can be done today. One, 22-year-old Sam Saunders, joined the PGA Tour this year and has played in five events. The former Clemson player placed 17th at The Honda Classic.
Palmer also has a 15-year-old grandson who aims to play on the PGA Tour, and Palmer said he plans to be around to celebrate his grandson's first win. By then, that grandson could be leading yet another wave of youngsters infusing energy into the sport.