Disclosing a new technique that has made his unbelievable tee shots even better, Arnold Palmer this week carried his siege of the professional golf tour to the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth. Everything he did there was, as usual, somewhat larger than life-size. His response to challenge was ferocious. And, near the end, his ennui in the face of success was almost fatal.
Palmer had come for revenge against a course that had consistently humbled him, and he got it in full measure. Even if victory nearly escaped him, as he was carried to a playoff by young Johnny Pott, his performance gave not the least comfort to his fellow pros. It was of the same type that enabled him to win three tournaments in five weeks, it was frankly awesome, it had his competitors talking to themselves, and golf followers talking about no one else.
He blew a three-stroke lead almost casually on Sunday to cause the playoff. Pott played magnificently through a Texas gale that day, shooting a 69 for a total of 281. Palmer and Gary Player, meanwhile, were still on the course and joking with each other over the ineptness of their play. "I got to watching Gary instead of thinking about the course, and I started playing badly with him," Palmer said later. "We began laughing about how badly we were doing."
Nor could Palmer even be serious when the tournament ended in a tie. "A playoff is like working an eight-day week," he told reporters. Then he handed happy Johnny Pott a dime and said, "I'll match you for it right now. Flip it." Pott did. Palmer called heads, it came up tails and Pott said, "Thank you, gentlemen," and pretended to walk out, which is, all things considered, a logical thing to do when faced with a playoff against Arnold Palmer. That Palmer went on to win the playoff by four strokes surprised not even Johnny Pott.
"It's getting so now that if Palmer doesn't win your golf tournament it hasn't been a success," Dan Jenkins, a Dallas sports columnist and golf writer, had said on Saturday as Palmer trudged up the 18th fairway with a score of 66 and a three-stroke lead as good as in his pocket. (No one was paying any attention to Johnny Pott, seven strokes back in fifth place.)
So at that point it looked very much as if the Colonial National Invitation could be a distinct success, just as the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas had been on the previous weekend and the Texas Open at San Antonio the week before that and the Masters three weeks before that and...
There was a time, however, when it seemed as if the Colonial might not meet the necessary specifications, for Palmer thought seriously of passing it up. "It gets to be a question," he said, "of just how long you can go out there and do your best."
His absence would have been a serious blow to the Colonial, which justifiably prides itself on being one of the more prestigious and better-run events on the golf circuit. It has traditionally been considered the last of the truly big tournaments before the U.S. Open, it is played on a severe and demanding course, and it has often served as an indicator on the form of the golfers as they get set for the big championship.
But what actually got Palmer to the Colonial was a challenge, and there is nothing like a challenge to stir the Palmer juices. For seven years the Colonial had beaten Arnold Palmer. It had held him to the paltry total of $2,937 in prize money. It had demeaned him into such rounds as 81 and 80, and his highest pro tournament score, a whopping 312. His average finish had been a woeful 23rd place.
"I would have just as soon passed it up," Palmer said last Wednesday. "But it kind of bugged me the way they said I couldn't play Colonial." Previously he had admitted that "it isn't my type of course. It confines me off the tees. I get mad at it and try to cram the ball in the hole and you can't do that at Colonial. You have to romance it." Thus a thoroughly challenged Palmer decided to come to Colonial and, though he may have called it romancing, what he actually did for three days was club the course to death, shooting an overwhelming 67, 72, 66.
The enormous success of Arnold Palmer this season—and so far these have been the most successful five months of his career—has left the other tournament pros shaking their heads in dismay. Most of them prefer to think it is due to some sort of extraordinary luck in his putting, and they like to tease him about his putts.
"Man, I'm a pretty good putter," Jack Burke Jr. was saying last week, "but I know how much luck is involved in sinking it from 25 feet [the length of Palmer's winning putt on the 72nd green at Las Vegas]. The man has got super confidence and concentration, but you don't ever know you're going to hole those kind."
What the pros are neglecting to concede is that Palmer is hitting some very beautiful golf shots before his ball arrives at the putting green. His driving at the moment is superb. Arnold attributes it to a new discovery that he is not yet ready to describe in detail. "It's a new way of hitting that I came on more or less by accident," he explained at Colonial. "I'm teeing the ball up much further off the ground, and I'm hitting it right off the tee without touching the grass with my club. I used to tee the ball low and hit it almost like an iron."
He has made adjustments in his driver to accommodate his new technique. "I've changed the swing weight from about D-8 or D-9 to D-6. But the shaft is the same—43 inches," he said.
The effect of Palmer's new driving method was very evident at Colonial, particularly on his second round when he shot a two-over-par 72. In the past Palmer has gotten himself in some mighty awkward places with his driver, and one of the great spectator thrills has been to watch him dashingly extricate himself. But on this particular Friday at Colonial his drives missed the fairway only twice. Once was on the 14th hole, where he hit a sharp hook into the rough. "I know what happened there," he said later. "I tried a little experiment, and the club turned in my hand." He drove into a bunker on the left of the 15th fairway, but it was still a good drive and would have been safe if he hadn't hit it so far.
Palmer's trouble on that day was his irons. His approaches to the green were leaving him with long, long putts and occasionally bunker-shots from alongside the greens. In all, he took 35 putts for the eighteen holes, and that isn't a bit like Palmer. "I can only explain it this way," he said afterwards. "Some of the things I am doing in my driving have carried over into my irons, and I don't want to do anything about that right now. I don't want to change more than one thing at a time."
Whether it's a little luck and a lot of skill, or vice versa, the presence of Palmer hovers over the other tournament pros these days with about the same cheerful aspect as a mushroom cloud. When they are going well, they not only have to worry about the course, there is always the threat of the famed Palmer "charge" in the closing round to rob them of their victory. Most of them would prefer—if they had a choice—to at least have him out in the lead where they can see him, as he was most of the time at Colonial. When he is lurking a few strokes behind, as he was in the last nine at Vegas, it's enough to melt the steadiest nerves.
In trouble when ahead
It must be remembered, too, that Palmer needs some inspiration to play his best. Usually he gets it from the excitement of overtaking a front-runner. Just being ahead sort of bores him. Another kind of prospect that ignites him is the thought in his or anyone else's mind that he can't do something—like play the Colonial course. At such times the determination hardens inside him and becomes an extra weapon that is available to only the greatest of performers. It is only when he gets ahead, as he did at Colonial, or has proved he has mastered a course, as his 67-72-66 also did, that he lapses into a sort of subconscious listlessness. Then he shoots 76s, gets caught by such fellow pros as Johnny Pott, and shows that the tour isn't a one-man carnival after all.
Like everyone else in Fort Worth last week, Mike Souchak was having his say about Palmer, and he got very close to the core. "That man is something else," Mike was saying. "He was gonna win at Vegas if he had to hole a driver. How do you think like that? How do you get pumped up like he does?"
Another opinion came from George Low, the itinerant clubmaker who has been an unofficial appendage of the tour for years. "The man is totally unbothered by people," contributed Low. "He likes people. He don't mind all them phonies hanging around him, the kind of guys that Hogan and Snead wouldn't have put up with for a second. Palmer's a nice guy. He shakes off worries and tees off with only one thing in mind—to beat the course."
Add then a final word from Gary Player. "I've been trying to tell myself for too long that it's luck. But now I'm convinced. It's more than luck. Arnie is simply the greatest there ever was."