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Schmuck: Heat, humidity at Senior Players provide conditions that Arnold Palmer considered no sweat in '02

It's something of a Baltimore tradition. The PGA Tour Champions comes to town and is greeted by enough heat and humidity to turn a pre-round driving range session into a dance with dehydration.

Well, at least it isn't hard to get loose.

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The Constellation Senior Players Championship began Thursday at Caves Valley Golf Club with a projected heat index — according to one forecast — of 105 degrees, which brought back memories of the 2002 Senior Open played under similarly steamy conditions.

That event featured a 72-year-old Arnold Palmer, whose life and legendary career will be celebrated here with Saturday billed as "Arnold Palmer Appreciation Day," and I had the honor of walking the first nine holes inside the ropes and witnessing all that made "The King" so revered among his peers and his famous army of fans.

Palmer had a special place in his heart for Baltimore. He was just starting to build his legend when he won the Eastern Open in 1956 at Mount Pleasant Golf Course — only the third of his 96 professional victories. When he stepped up to the first tee at Caves 46 years later, the reaction of the crowd clearly showed that Baltimore also had a special place in its heart for him.

It was sizzling on the golf course that day, but Palmer held par for six holes and held the crowd in the velvet embrace of one of professional sports' most beloved personalities. The round eventually crumbled, but Arnie yucked it up with the fans and didn't seem any worse for his whereabouts. I was all of 46 at the time and dragged myself off the ninth hole in desperate search of the air-conditioned media tent.

The heat and humidity Thursday was not quite as overbearing as the forecast threatened, but it was very hot and we're talking about a bunch of 50-something golfers walking the dramatically undulating Caves Valley layout from start to finish. Fortunately, the minimum age limit doesn't apply to the caddies.

Corey Pavin learned a couple days earlier that he would be in the first group to go out and didn't realize how good he would have it.

"When I got my starting time on Tuesday afternoon, I went, 'Oh, really, first off, my gosh, that's early,' " Pavin said after shooting a 7-under-par 65. "And then I saw the weather and I went, 'Maybe that's a good thing.' It was good to be out there. It was pretty hot. It was really steamy early."

Arnold Palmer tees off at No. 5 during a practice round at the U.S. Senior Open on June 26, 2002, at Caves Valley Golf Club.
Arnold Palmer tees off at No. 5 during a practice round at the U.S. Senior Open on June 26, 2002, at Caves Valley Golf Club. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

Brandt Jobe, who was on top of the leader board after 16 holes before a couple of bogeys dropped him two strokes off the pace, said the humidity was the big thing, but he felt it was as hot as advertised until a breeze came up in the early afternoon to cool things off a bit.

"I'm soaked,'' he said. "It feels like it's 105. I think it was actually worse our first five or six holes because there was no wind at all. We were all soaked and couldn't stay dry. And then this breeze has actually helped out, but it's very, very hot."

Three-time consecutive Senior Players champion Bernhard Langer, who has dominated the tour recently and is far and away this year's Charles Schwab Cup money leader ($1,815,666), is six weeks away from his 60th birthday, but he braved the heat to shoot 65 and sat on the lead with Pavin until Larry Mize and Steve Flesch made a late run.

Mize, another guy whose 60th birthday is on the horizon, would finish alone at the top with an 8-under 64, and Flesch would join Pavin and Langer in a tie for second.

Langer credits his tremendous late-career success to a demanding physical regimen, which might explain why he looked surprisingly fresh as he left the course, but he said — in this case — looks might be deceiving.

"It was tough today,'' he said. "It's a hard walk — lots of hills — and the humidity and the heat, it's not easy. Especially at our age, you feel it."

Mize also spends a lot of time in the workout trailers and said that helps him get through days like Thursday.

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"For me, being from Georgia, this is kind of normal weather,'' he said. "But we do work. We work with weights. We work on our cardiovascular. Obviously, you can see that Bernhard definitely does that and a lot of us do it so that we can come out here and hold up under these conditions."

Somewhere, The King must be chuckling at these kids. On the scorching day in 2002, Palmer smiled all the way to an 11-over 82 in what remains the most memorable round of golf I have ever personally witnessed. He never mentioned the heat.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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