THE WORD FOR THE NEW YEAR COULD BE 'CHARGE'
It was an excellent day for golf. The soft midwinter sun worked its way through the smaze, driving the temperature up into the mid-70s, and Angelenos by the thousands turned out to watch the third round of their Los Angeles Open. The largest group joined Arnie's Army, some just to see the most thrilling figure that golf has produced since Bobby Jones, others to find out for themselves if there could possibly be anything to the stories that Arnold Palmer, the once incomparable Arnold Palmer, was over the hill.
What they saw was two hours of golf that epitomized the most exciting start a PGA tour has had in years. Palmer put on one of those all-but-forgotten streaks of miracle shotmaking that made him famous—the kind of golf that brought the word "charge" into the vocabulary of the game. He birdied seven straight holes, tied the Rancho Park Golf Course tournament record of 62 and all but assured himself of his first victory in eight months.
The next day he continued to behave like the Arnie of old. First, he was puffing on cigarettes—a secret smoker for a long time, Palmer has resumed on-course smoking after trying to quit since January 1964. Second, he got careless with his seven-stroke lead and let slip all but a stroke of it before steadying to finish with a 73 and a 72-hole 273, beating runners-up Paul Harney and Miller Barber by three strokes. It was Palmer the Performer on stage again, and the first question of the 1966 tour had been quickly answered. Palmer may have stepped out of sight for a time, but he hasn't gone over any hill.
Palmer started his Saturday by teeing off at 11:30 in the final threesome. He was paired with Dave Ragan, who was leading the tournament at this midway point, and Miller Barber, who was three strokes back. After a splendid 66 on Friday, Arnold himself was tied for second, just a stroke behind Ragan, so the final two rounds were bound to provide a clue as to what the future was going to hold for him.
There was nothing premonitory about the way things began. Palmer parred the first three holes, missing two of the greens but saving himself with good chips and putts. At the 4th he sank a four-footer for his first birdie, but a weak chip and two putts at the 5th brought him a bogey 5. Thus he stood at even par on the 6th tee when his fabulous surge really began.
Playing as he hasn't played since the 1964 Masters, he reeled off nine birdies, seven of them from the 8th through the 14th holes. The early stages of this tremendous charge seemed fairly routine. The birdies at 8 and 9 were on par-5 holes, both of which Palmer can reach in two if he must. The 9th at the Rancho municipal course is always a bit traumatic for him—it was there in 1961 that he had a horrendous 12, which is now commemorated by a plaque at the spot from which he sliced two fairway woods out of bounds to the right and then hooked two more out of bounds to the left. On this day, with a good score in the making, Palmer laid up short and safe with a one-iron. He then hit a weak pitch shot, but sank a 15-foot putt for the birdie.
At the 10th, a three-foot putt brought a birdie, but at the 11th he had to sink a 25-footer. A 10-foot putt meant a birdie at 12. Now he had five straight, with the easy par-5 13th coming up. A drive and a spoon left him just off the green, and another timid pitch stopped 15 feet short.
At this point the thought crossed Palmer's mind that once before in his career when he had a streak of five straight birdies it ended with careless play on a par-5. So he inspected every blade of grass between his ball and the hole, took plenty of time and then dropped the slightly curling putt. Looking extremely serious, he picked the ball out of the hole and stepped to the side of the green to wait while the others putted. Barber's turn was next, and as he was lining up his putt he suddenly broke out laughing. So did Palmer and Ragan. It was a spontaneous outburst that relieved the tension and made one realize that all three of these pros knew they were taking part in something pretty stupendous for golf.
"By the time I reached the 15th I began to get shaken by what was happening," Palmer said later. "After I pulled the ball into the rough there, I think I choked a little on the nine-iron I hit to the green." He left the ball 35 feet from the hole, and when that long putt failed to drop, the streak was over. Had he made the putt, he would have tied Bob Goalby's PGA record of eight straight birdies.
Palmer picked up his 10th and final birdie of the day at the next hole, the 16th, but he almost sank a 40-foot chip shot for another one at the 17th, and his birdie putt from 12 feet at the 18th was headed right into the hole when it veered aside at the last second and stopped an inch away. Still, Palmer's 33-29—62 left him seven strokes ahead of Billy Casper, who shot a fine 66 to take over second place. Palmer's putting stroke, which had betrayed him for months, certainly seemed back again. He took only 24 putts, the least he has ever had in a pro tournament round. Very few people who saw his round will forget the expressions that crossed his face as he ran off his birdies. The determination and delight was visible from a hundred yards away.
That evening when Palmer walked into crowded Chasen's restaurant, the whole place broke into a cheer. He could hardly stop smiling all evening, for, more important than anything, he had proved to himself that the golf he used to play was still in him. "I was playing well out there," he conceded without any silly false modesty. "And I was really putting again." Earlier in the week Palmer had made a slight change in his putting grip, moving his hands up slightly on the handle and readjusting his position over the ball. He thought it helped, but what had really helped was the prospect of a new year and a rebirth of confidence.
Coming in the first week of January, the Los Angeles Open always serves to remind professional tournament golfers that they can stop worrying about their miseries of the past and start their careers anew, just as the Masters reminds them that spring is here and the Open tells them summertime has arrived. Beyond that, having last week celebrated its 40th birthday, the Los Angeles Open wears a certain patina of prestige, like the patriarch of an Oriental family, for it is now the fourth oldest tournament on the pro tour, after the PGA Championship and the U.S. and Western Opens. All of which made this an unusually good setting for Palmer's spectacular offering.
Before the tournament even got under way there had been an enormous amount of speculation about Palmer's future. Last year had been his worst since 1959 and he was considerably disturbed by the fact that he won only a single tournament—that one a closed affair with a limited field, the Tournament of Champions. For almost anybody else Palmer's 1965 would have been a bonanza, since he won $83,000 in prize money, but his official winnings of $57,770 left him in 10th place on the money list, an honor roll on which he had placed either first or second for the previous six years.
The significant thing about Palmer's 1965 golf was that for the first time since he rose to the top he putted like a normal man—or maybe even worse. As his wife, Winnie, said early in the year, "Arnie has suddenly discovered that every putt does not have to go in the hole." By July he was receiving hundreds of letters giving him putting advice, for everybody is an expert on how to make a three-footer. Palmer would experiment with his grip on the putter, the weight of the head, the angle of the shaft. He wondered whether he should wear a sun visor because his habit of squinting might be throwing him off. He was perplexed, his confidence was going fast and his fellow pros were giving him the needle and welcoming him into the ranks of the mortals. "It was not a good year," Palmer readily conceded last week.
In the end, the trouble may simply have been one of concentration. Palmer was unable to forget the day-to-day details of his impressive number of business interests once he was on the golf course. "I'd find myself walking down a fairway thinking about some deal I was involved in or remembering something I had forgotten to say to someone, or somebody would come up to me in the middle of a round and tell me that he had ordered four sets of clubs and they hadn't arrived or he couldn't locate the salesman for our company or something like that. Those are only minor irritations, but they get to you when you aren't playing well."
It was obvious to anyone who has been around Palmer very much that he was not at all pleased with himself. The brow was furrowed oftener than not. A lot of the old bounce had gone out of that purposeful stride down the fairway and he no longer looked upon a golf course as something to be cheerfully strangled to death. Often it seemed as if Palmer were getting strangled.
The contrast between that Arnold Palmer and the one who arrived in Los Angeles last week was both astonishing and heartwarming to those who like to see him win. He seemed years younger. In casual conversation his mind no longer wandered away to far-off private thoughts of his own, and he was playing his shots superbly.
Because Palmer can hit a ball so hard and far when he wants to, a lot of people tend to think something is wrong when they see his drives fall short of those of some of the other pros, as frequently happens now. To be sure, there were times in the past when he was outhitting everyone but, as he says, "I never have worried just because someone was outdriving me. I've always played with guys who could hit it farther than I could. But then, I've always felt I had a little something extra in reserve when I needed it. Still, there was a point a few years ago when I knew I was slugging too hard."
This year (and even as far back as the Ryder Cup matches in Britain last October, when he was playing some of the finest golf of his life and driving excellently) Palmer is hitting the ball off the tee with a good deal less grunt and strain. His is still a big, powerful swing, but it looks to be under more control than in the past. He is positioning his tee shots much better, and the loss of distance is unimportant.
The improvement in his putting and concentration could be most significant, and a basic change in his scheduling system may be responsible. "I've made some adjustments so I won't have to get involved in business details when I should be concentrating on a tournament," Palmer says. "My only objective this year is winning golf tournaments. That is what interests me. You can't go out there thinking about just finishing in the top five and not caring if you win. Sure, you may finish in the first five if you think that way, but you won't ever win."
The host of people who are involved with Palmer's own companies, plus those who hire him, have been told that, unlike last year, Palmer will not be available for meetings, dinners, phone calls, handshakes or even a friendly wink during the week of a tournament. Instead, segments of his schedule will be set aside solely for business operations. This week, for example, he is joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who were not at the L.A. Open, to film a TV show and has a full schedule of meetings and appointments. Then come a few weeks of nothing but golf, then more business.
Anyone looking for concrete evidence of the new Palmer could have found it during the pro-am competition at Rancho the day before the tournament started, when Arnold won the low-pro prize of $500 with a 67. Rancho, although a public course with little rough and few bunkers, is a severe test when it is stretched to its full length. In last week's early rounds it was playing especially long, for the area had received 15 inches of rain in the past two months, which is more than Los Angeles normally gets in a year. Rancho's humpbacked greens were their usually bumpy selves—the course claims to have more rounds of golf played on it each year than any other in the world—and, as Bill Casper put it, "If you don't get your approach shot reasonably close, you have a bogey staring you in the face."
In Thursday's opening round Palmer looked for a moment like last year's edition. Before he could hit his stride he bogeyed the 3rd, 4th and 5th holes and was three over par, missing putts of four, three and four feet in the process. He then settled down and brought in a respectable, if unimpressive, one-over-par 72. Strangely, though, he was not dismayed. When somebody asked him if he thought 1966 was going to be a different kind of year for him, the biggest smile wreathed his face as he answered, "It's going to be a lot different."
The next day, the second round of the tournament, Palmer got his 66, the best round of the tournament at that point. Even so, he had managed to three-putt one green. He talked about his putting that night at dinner, laughing when he said, "You know, if I were putting the way I used to, it would have been a 61."
Then came Saturday. "This tournament used to be played Friday through Monday," a hardened L.A. Open follower later observed. "But now they have figured out a way to end it on Saturday." And indeed they had.
So overwhelming was Palmer's performance that one tended to forget some of the other big pro tour questions, such as Tony Lema's elbow and Ken Venturi's hands and Gary Player's neck. Well, Lema's elbow, which has bothered him for six months, still does. Since early autumn he has been taking it easy and hoping the pain would go away. He has now decided to play himself into condition and see how the elbow reacts. If it still bothers him, he will go home to Dallas for possible surgery.
The unfortunate long-lasting drama of Venturi's hands may finally be over. Cold weather still bothers several of his fingers, principally on the right hand, so he will skip the Crosby and look to the warm sunshine of Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson. Then he will go home until it is time to get ready for the Masters. If his progress continues at its present rate, he might be completely cured by then. His 71-70-74-69 at L.A. definitely was promising.
As for Gary Player, his penchant for aches is exceeded only by his penchant for excellent golf. He will not join the U.S. tour until Masters warmup time and will doubtless be well enough to beat almost anybody.
Of the others it might be said that the year has come in golf when new names should be moving forward to challenge some of the familiar figures—the Januarys, Finsterwalds, Littlers, Sanderses and Heberts. Last year it was Dave Marr, Bruce Devlin and Al Geiberger who played their way into the first 10. This year some younger ones may make their moves: Ray Floyd, Randy Glover, R.H. Sikes, Dudley Wysong and especially Homero Blancas, who has assurance, finesse and a finely fashioned swing. His only drawback is that he does not hit his drives very far. "Far enough," says Palmer. "Far enough."
So watch these new ones. But most of all you better watch that new old one, Mr. Palmer.
'O.K. LET'S START AGAIN'
A year ago, in a story called 'Rabbits Chase Kings,' Sports Illustrated reported the pro debut of a rookie. Here is how he has fared
On the practice tee at the L.A. Open last Wednesday, Chris Blocker, very much older and considerably wiser than when he set forth on the pro tour exactly a year ago, was hitting big, long, 300-yard hooks into the adjoining 18th fairway and feeling miserable. In this tournament last year he had begun his pro golf career by finishing tied for 13th and winning $1,400. Things were never that good again. The following week he won $505 at San Diego and four weeks later at Phoenix he picked up a check for $660.71. It was about there that he also picked up his hook, the thing that a strong golfer like Blocker wants least. "After that," he recalls, "I lost confidence in myself. I began fighting myself. Everybody tells you, if you miss a putt or hit a bad shot, forget it. I know the champions can, but up to now I haven't been able to."
Blocker did not make another dime until he reached Houston in mid-April. There he tied for 19th and earned a thousand dollars. Then came $150 at Colonial—given to all invitees—and $102.50 at New Orleans. That, except for $645.64 in unofficial tournament earnings in such events as the Alvin Dark Open, was it for the entire year, a total of $3,818.21 that left him in 107th place on the 1965 official money list.
"One thing I discovered," he says, "is that you have to learn so many different kinds of shots. When you aren't playing well, you have to be able to save those pars, and that's where you need the experience. When I was playing well I was just shooting par, but when I was going badly I would have a 76 or 77."
Through the St. Paul Open in late June, Blocker tried to qualify for every tournament on the tour. Then, disgusted, he went home to Jal, N. Mex. to rest and think things over. After visiting his parents he moved on to Lubbock, Texas to practice with his old coach in the hope that the rhythm of his game would return. But he found he had no appetite for golf, or anything else. His weight was down 15 pounds, to 185, and he felt so poorly that he decided to "just lay around for a couple of months." He did not rejoin the tour until the Carling Open in late August, where he shot a 76-77 and missed the cut. By the time he reached the Cajun Classic in Louisiana in late November he had put 32,000 miles on his car and flown another 4,000 miles. The glamour was gone and it was "just a job to do." His expenses had been $10,000 for the year, the money to meet them coming largely from his own savings and his parents.
So far, he has not decided if he can make a success of tournament golf. "One thing I do know," he says. "It's going to take a lot longer than I thought it would."
With that he hit a good, straight drive. Then he hit another hook. Turning to a nearby pro, he said, "Just when you think you've learned something, you're too tired to do it." The pro advised him to rest awhile. Soon the caddie returned with the practice balls and set them down. Blocker took a seven-iron out of his bag and said wearily to the caddie, "O.K., let's start out all over again, right from the beginning."
By Sunday night he had shot 71-74-73-78—296 in the 1966 L.A. Open, which earned him nothing, and he was off for the San Diego Open, a rookie no more.