Arnold Palmer: Rest best for Tiger

Updated: March 19, 2014, 3:52 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Arnold Palmer is not sure how bad Tiger Woods' back problem is, but he's not ready to say it or any other age-related issues will be enough to keep the game's No. 1-ranked player from pursuing Jack Nicklaus' major championships record.

Woods, 38, has been stuck on 14 majors since winning the 2008 U.S. Open. That's four majors behind Nicklaus, who won his 18th at age 46 in 1986.

Woods had to withdraw from this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational due to back spasms that plagued him in his past two tournaments.

"I don't think 38 years is the ultimate stopping point for his quest to do what Jack did,'' said Palmer, 84, who hosts his tournament at Bay Hill for the 36th consecutive year. "I think it lessens the possibility of that happening. It's going to be tough. It's going to be tough to keep the concentration and the type of game that is necessary to win majors.''

Palmer won the last of his seven major championships 50 years ago at the 1964 Masters. Although he contended in them for another decade, Palmer was 33 at the time of his last major victory. Along with Tom Watson, who won his last major at age 34, Palmer is often cited as an example of why it might be difficult for Woods to win many more majors at his age.

Then again, Nicklaus won four in his 40s. Ben Hogan, who finished with nine major titles, won three in his 40s. But neither Nicklaus nor Hogan had back issues, at least not ones that threatened to knock them out of playing in majors.

Woods is off to the worst start of his career through four tournaments. He withdrew from the Honda Classic during the final round due to back spasms, and was clearly hurting during the final round of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where he shot 78 without making a birdie and tied for 25th.

At Bay Hill, Woods would have been attempting to win the tournament for the ninth time, but he called Palmer on Tuesday to say he could not play due to his back.

"He didn't tell me how bad his back is,'' Palmer said. "I don't think he knows how bad his back is. I think he's listening to the doctors. And he mentioned that they're saying that he needs to give it a bit of a rest and see if he can work it out.

"He was very nice. And I, of course, have great sympathy for the fact that he tried like hell to come here and play. And I appreciate that and the fact that he called and just I think he wanted to play golf this week.

"He just feels that strain and I think that he needs to take, whether it's this week, next week or the following week, to get ready for Augusta. Certainly if I were in that position I'd be doing much the same.''

Palmer, who said he's likely to have surgery for his own back issues later this year, is scheduled to be the honorary starter again at next month's Masters, along with Nicklaus and Gary Player. Palmer played in 50 consecutive Masters starting in 1955, winning four times.

On Wednesday, he reminisced about the Eisenhower Tree on the 17th hole that recently had to be removed due to storm damage. The tree was named in honor of President Dwight Eisenhower, an Augusta member from 1948 until his death in 1969.

"I played Augusta every year since that tree was a baby and I watched it grow up,'' he said. "And, yes, I had encounters with it. I won the Masters one year [1962] when I hit it right into the tree and hit a 4-iron from under the tree on to the 17th green. So it was a problem to everybody. And I played a lot of golf at Augusta with Ike. And of course he hated that tree.

"But he was a soft-spoken guy and a president who was very enjoyable. And he didn't like the tree at all. A couple of times he told me, he said, 'Arnie, if I could hit that tree enough to bring it down, I'd do it.'''

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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