LIGONIER, Pa. (AP) – Perhaps this best explains Arnold Palmer’s game at age 75: He plays golf these days mostly for the exercise.

“I like to get out in the air and I like to walk,” said Palmer, golf’s acknowledged king for multiple generations. Now, his tournaments and his years both winding down, Palmer plays mostly to lend his enormous prestige to a few selected events.

For Palmer, who is widely credited with singularly transforming American golf into a spectator sport as well as a participatory one, the Senior PGA championship that begins Thursday is his last elite-level tournament in his native Western Pennsylvania.

That raises this question of the golfer who still counts millions as members of the devoted legion of fans known as Arnie’s Army: Is this the last significant tournament for one of the most recognized and successful athletes of all time?

Unlike Jack Nicklaus, who says this summer’s British Open will be his last big tournament, Palmer isn’t into definitives.

He says only, “I’m not going to make any rash statements about quitting or when I’m going to quit or what I’m going to do. I’ll play … as long as my old body will allow me to play, and I do enjoy it.”

But Palmer realizes nothing is forever – even if golfers now nearing retirement age have barely known the day when they couldn’t flip on the TV and see Palmer play a competitive round.

It’s been 21 years since Palmer last won the Senior PGA, 17 years since he last won any PGA-level tournament, 12 years since his last Top 10 finish, 11 years since he last played in the U.S. Open, also in the Pittsburgh area.

Now, improbable as it might seem for the golfer who still makes more money away from the course than anybody except Tiger Woods, just making the cut is a near-impossible goal. He’s shot 80 or above in five of his six Champion Tour rounds this year and, in a three-hole Senior PGA media day appearance last month, was outdriven on two holes by TV anchormen.

“My game is unsatisfactory at the moment … I played a practice round (this week) with Jay Haas and, very frankly, he is swinging so well and playing so well it made me feel kind of inadequate out there,” Palmer said. “I’m not sure that I have the physical ability to make that desire (to make the cut) fulfill itself. But I’m going to try.”

This wouldn’t seem to be the way Palmer would want to see his remarkable career wind down, just a few miles from the Latrobe Country Club course where father Deke was the superintendent and, 60 years ago, he began to grow and polish his game.

But, and this is what may differentiate him most from Nicklaus, golf to Palmer has not always been about winning or merely competing – as his first-round 86 at last year’s Senior PGA at Valhalla shows.

Just four months from his 76th birthday, Palmer still plays before spectators because this is what he loves to do. And he still loves it, even if his game is but a glimmer of what it was when he won 62 PGA tournaments from 1955-73 and 10 more on the Champions/Seniors tour.

“I don’t really need to (play),” said Palmer, who sat out the Masters this year for the first time in a half-century. “I can tell you this, that I still enjoy it. The difference between Jack and I, Jack has a lot of interests that are not necessarily golf.”

That’s why, when it would seem there would be no earthly reason why he would want to see his score posted alongside those 15-20 strokes lower, Palmer still plays in selected charity tournaments and Champions Tour events.

“His body is not letting him play the kind of game he would love to play … he was at that crossroads a number of years ago, but he has chosen to continue on, simply because I think that the fans still want to see him,” Champions Tour money leader Hale Irwin said.

Could it be Palmer is holding out to play a for-real round with his 17-year-old grandson, Sam Saunders, who caddied for him during his last Masters in 2004 and is attempting to qualify for this year’s U.S. Open?

“I’m not one to hang around,” Palmer said, all but ruling that out. “When I’m not playing, I’m gone.”

While Palmer isn’t a threat to win on the 7,107-yard Laurel Valley Golf Club course he himself redesigned, plenty of others are.

Among the top names are Haas, who has three top-3 finishes in as many Champion Tours events this year; Craig Stadler, who won five Champions tournaments last year and has two PGA Tour Top 10 finishes this year.

Jim Thorpe, who has won two of his last three tournaments and Irwin, the defending champion.

AP-ES-05-25-05 1745EDT

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