His kingdom for another victory Legend: Arnold Palmer continues to play tournament golf at age 68 not for the money, adulation or a place in history, but because he's sure he can still win.

July 03, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He is 68 years old and hasn't won a golf tournament in a decade. When he shot under par for two days in a row last weekend, friends called to offer their congratulations.

It is a little hard being Arnold Palmer when you're a legend in name more than game, when people put 30-year-old photographs in front of you to sign and you give them a wink when you really want to wince.

It is a little hard when you'll be the biggest draw at the inaugural State Farm Senior Classic, but you're not sure how you'll play when the $1.25 million tournament begins today at the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia.

"It makes it a little difficult for me," Palmer said before yesterday's pro-am. "I still have the drive and the desire to win. Somewhere in this thick skull of mine, there's the belief that I still can win. When and if I'm convinced I can't, I'll cut back."

The competitive drive that helped him win eight major championships and 60 tournaments overall on the PGA Tour, as well as 10 more events on the Senior Tour, keeps Palmer coming back.

That, and the response he gets from the fans who grew up watching him and started playing golf because of him. They keep coming back, too, as Calvin Cooley did yesterday.

Cooley, a 65-year-old retired metallurgic engineer from Pittsburgh, has followed Palmer for decades. Usually, he takes a first-edition copy of Palmer's book, "Golf My Way", with him. He bought the book in 1965.

"I've been trying to get that rascal to sign it ever since," Cooley said. "I went to Oakmont [outside Pittsburgh] for the U.S. Open, in 1994 and in 1973. I went to the Kemper a couple of times. One of these days."

Cooley is one of those who got hooked on golf watching Palmer. Unlike Jack Nicklaus, he played the kind of game with which weekend hackers were familiar.

"Most golfers could identify with Arnie because he was usually in the woods, always scrambling," Cooley said. "Arnie's also not one of the gold spoon kind of guys. He's one of the people."

Palmer demonstrated why his popularity has endured during the course of his first-ever round at Hobbit's Glen. He wasn't in the woods, he didn't even have to scramble much. But he stopped after each hole to sign autographs and spoke to those who came to watch him play.

"You could see what happens the moment he shows up," said Bernie Kotula, 72, a retired Baltimore County Board of Education official from Parkville who'll be a marshal this week. "I can feel the electricity."

Kotula had his own personal surge when Palmer signed a pairing sheet from the final round of the 1956 Eastern Open, the second victory of Palmer's legendary career. The State Farm Senior Classic will mark Palmer's first appearance in the Baltimore area since he played in that tournament through the early 1960s, first at Mount Pleasant and later Pine Ridge.

It was nearly a short-lived relationship that ended after his first shot in 1956.

"My first tee shot was OB [out of bounds]," Palmer recalled. "I was a little bit of temper guy in those days and I shoved my club back in the bag and said to my playing partners, 'I'm out of here.' "

One of Palmer's playing partners, the usually grumpy Doug Ford, told him to hang in there.

"He said, 'Oh, you can spot the field two shots,' " Palmer said with a smile. "On the back nine Sunday I had something like a 12-shot lead and I wound up winning by 10 or 11 shots."

His other distinct memory of playing in Baltimore wasn't so pleasant. It came a few years later when he had to withdraw from the Eastern Open because of a back injury.

"I was riding to the golf course in George Bayer's car and the air conditioning was coming out right on my back," Palmer said. "I had shot 69 the first day, but my back got so sore I couldn't play. It led to eventual back problems starting in 1966 to until recently."

Palmer was a late addition to the field in Columbia. In part, it was due to Palmer's recent string of poor performances that ended last weekend at the NFL Charities Classic in Clifton, N.J., where he shot 1-under-par 71 in each of the last two rounds and finished tied for 47th.

It also had to do with the family gathering this weekend in Latrobe, Pa. He and his wife, Winnie, will host a party for 29 that will include their two daughters and six grandchildren. He will commute, flying his private jet in each morning, and flying back each night.

"That was a major hang-up in my committing," Palmer said of the family gathering.

Palmer had hinted earlier this year that he might stop playing competitively if he did not see any improvement in his game. Doc Giffin, who has worked as Palmer's administrative aide for the past 32 years, said that his office receives letters every day from fans pleading for Palmer to keep playing.

"Not playing the kind of golf I feel I should makes it difficult," said Palmer, who has not had a top 10 finish on the Senior Tour since 1993. "People came up to me after last week and said, 'Great playing, shooting two 71s.' I was disappointed it wasn't any better."

Giffin said the support Palmer receives would make it difficult for him to stop. The letters poured in last year after Palmer underwent surgery and treatment for prostate cancer.

"I think without that [the letters], he would be discouraged," Giffin said. "He gets encouragement from so many people. And he's still very enthusiastic about the game. I can't believe there's anybody, even on the regular tour, with his enthusiasm."

Still, it's hard for Arnold Palmer to still be "The King" when the throne has long been abdicated. But it's made a little easier by the outpouring of affection wherever he goes. By little things like the simple sign posted in a driveway on the street leading into the club.

"Go Arnie," it read.

If you're going

What: State Farm Senior Classic

Where: Hobbit's Glen Golf Club, 1130 Willow Bottom Road, Columbia

When: Through Sunday

Tickets: $25 per day

Information: 410-964-0900

Today's schedule: Tee times from 7: 30 a.m. to 12: 10 p.m.

Complete tee times. 7d

Pub Date: 7/03/98

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