CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Arnie doesn't have to win for us anymore. Just show up, squint into the sun and pound one down the fairway, hitch up his britches, wave to the crowd and start after it.
That's all the golf anyone needs, anyway.
But that's not enough for Arnold Palmer. He's still the man who won 92 professional titles, including a basket full of majors, and -- he's not at all interested in being a ceremonial player in the game he popularized so heroically, 61 years old or not.
Arnie's a splendid decoration, handsome to look at and one of a kind, but that notion comes close to insulting him. He loves the attention of the crowds but only if there are a few birdies to go with it.
That's why yesterday was a good day. Arnie made seven birdies and shot a 4-under-par 68 in a pro-am preliminary to the PaineWebber Invitational at Piper Glen. That may have postponed a large-scale retreat from tournament golf for The King.
"I felt pretty good about it," said Arnie, white hair tousled from the wind. "I haven't played that well in a long time, and I don't mean just score-wise. I've been pretty down in the mouth about the whole thing, to be perfectly honest."
Palmer has won once in six years, and that was in 1988. That's what's really bothering him. When he says he has to play better, he means he has to win.
"Playing well is winning," he said. "I can get along on a starvation diet but I can't starve totally. I've got to win soon or it'll be a very limited schedule."
Complicating the situation are a series of business problems. Japanese real estate brokers are suing Palmer over problems with the sale of his Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla., resulting from their default after posting a large deposit. Palmer lent his name and designed the golf course at Isleworth, a golf and real estate development in Orlando that has been in and out of court on charges of environmental damage. He also lent his name to an automobile firm that allegedly defaulted on a loan.
He's concerned about the damage all of this can do to his reputation.
"You can't divorce yourself from it, just because you're going to play a round of golf," he said. "You can't walk out and forget it's happening."
Palmer has talked before about cutting back on his schedule but this time, he sounds like he means it. He recently passed his annual physical with good grades but admits his hectic hopping from project to project tires him now. During a wide-ranging interview yesterday, about the only time he smiled was when he talked about one of his three grandchildren, a little fellow named Sam.
4 Here are Arnie's thoughts on some other matters:
Q. You're everybody's hero. Who are your heroes?
"I was a fan of Byron Nelson, to the extent that I studied his game and read his books. Not necessarily to copy his style but to learn a bit more about the discipline he had.
"Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan . . . I could go to the practice tee and watch Sam Snead hit 15 or 20 balls and then go play my best round in months.
"But they weren't my heroes. My dad was my hero."
Q. Do you reminisce about the good old days?
"Yes. Sometimes on my own, sometimes when it's put on me whether I want it or not. People give me old magazines, clippings, scrapbooks. We have scrapbooks that go back so far, my God, nobody can remember that far back.
"I reminisce with those things. It's interesting and fun."
Q. You're always changing clubs.
How do you choose your driver for the day?
"I'm amazed at how good some people play with the clubs they're using. They're the ugliest looking things I've ever seen. I've always believed if a club looks good to you, you can hit it."
Q. Is the golf ball too long?
"The golf ball today is excellent, too good. The Royal & Ancient Golf Club and USGA should get together and reduce the velocity of the ball."
"We need to slow the game down, not make courses any more difficult. People don't want to spend hour after hour looking for lost balls or carry an aqua-lung with them. ...
"I think something will be done about the ball. I think it's being discussed now."