There is nothing artificial about Palm Springs, if you believe that life is just a crystal bowl filled with champagne, chlorinated swimming pools and six-car garages. The Springs resembles a giant wall clock where the little hand never moves past 1960, a land of fantasy with background music by Lerner and Loewe and starched-collar conservatives playing out their last few hands.
Its heroes come simple: the Country, the President and Arnold Palmer—for this is the kingdom and Palmer is the king. He has won the Bob Hope Desert Classic five times, once more than he has the Masters, and along the way his path has been sprinkled with flowers and kisses and bright, shiny things. "He is our Moses and he has led us through the desert to the promised land," says a grateful hotel operator. In the background the Chamber of Commerce chants "Hallelujah."
Last week Palmer was back in his personal shopping center, playing in the Hope, whistling while he worked. Each day he strolled with his adoring legions, passing out autographs, posing for pictures and taking time to sniff the flowers along the way. To women Palmer is all things: father, brother, son and the boy they were too dumb to marry. He sauntered arm in arm with them along the fairways and pecked their proffered cheeks. On Thursday he paused to kiss a 92-year-old grandmother sitting in a wheelchair. A little later he was confronted by a young, bold beauty with a yearning for legends.
"And what do you do?" asked Palmer, thinking she was a starlet or a model.
"I run a pest-control business," came the answer. "We take the bugs out of living."
Palmer mulled that over. "Well," he laughed. "You could put the sting back in me."
Palmer is now 44 years old and his hair is gray and thinning. He wears glasses and he has not won a major championship since 1964. The last two years he has been 25th and 27th on the money list, the only times since he invented the game back in the late '50s that he has missed the top 10. At all other stops along the pro tour he is an aging ex-champion, still engaging but no longer capable of winning the big one, perhaps not any one. But in Palm Springs reality dissolves and "charge" is still a part of the vocabulary. So it was that last week belonged to Arnold Palmer.
It did not matter that he eventually finished in a tie for 49th, 21 shots behind winner Hubert Green, on rounds of 76-70-74-69-73—362. Every day the bulk of the gallery traipsed after him, hanging on his words as if they were being read from stone tablets, and generally regarding the leaders as if they were bill collectors. Bert Yancey shot a 61 on Friday and during a radio interview between nines he said he hoped "some people would come out to watch." They didn't. They were all mesmerized by Palmer shooting a 74.
Said Ray Floyd, "As far as the fans are concerned, we're just a lot of other scores."
The Bob Hope is the anomaly of the tour, a five-day, 90-hole event played over four courses, between canyons, condominiums, Vice-Presidents, a sprinkling of celebrities and among three or four thousand high-handicap golfers with low-handicap bank accounts who can afford a $2,000 entry fee. Above all, the amateurs have an unquenchable thirst for a cameo appearance in the spotlight, like gnats buzzing around a light bulb. As one pro said, looking down the writhing, flailing line on the practice tee at Eldorado Country Club one morning, "They dress like 72, talk like 82 and play like 122."
For the first four days the pros are teamed with the amateurs, the combinations switching each day. Naturally a pairing with Palmer is savored like a blind date with Raquel Welch. His teams rarely win anything, the amateurs usually needing smelling salts and nine holes before they can return to this planet. Some do manage to feign cool. One of Palmer's Thursday partners claimed he was not nervous, though his hands resembled the blades on a blender. Even Bobby Winkles, the manager of the California Angels who was teamed with Palmer in the first round, found himself chewing his tobacco a little more enthusiastically. Said John Leuthold, a Bel Air motion picture producer, "You stand up there and you try to remember that you once did swing a golf club before, even though now you have no idea how to do it." After chasing grounders for the first nine holes, Leuthold stopped for a drink or two at the turn, then announced, "I'm ready to charge now," and went off toward the 10th tee hitching up his pants and squinting at passing airplanes.
The format is probably partly responsible for Palmer's success at Palm Springs over the years. While others may be bothered by the distractions that accompany such a show-biz event, Palmer is better conditioned to them and perhaps even enjoys them. It is, after all, more comfortable to play 72 holes with a threesome of elderly and worshiping 90s shooters, men who regard you as a champion, than with some steely-eyed young shark who thinks of you as a has-been and who keeps unnerving you by rolling in 40-foot putts. Four days in this atmosphere can do wonders. Last year in the cold reality of the fifth round, Palmer was paired with Jack Nicklaus and responded magnificently to the challenge, shooting a 69 to Jack's 72 to win the tournament by two strokes.
To his fans in Palm Springs, Palmer's mannerisms and style are as familiar as their mates'. Standing in his gallery you can hear a current of excited patter running through the crowd as every nuance is explained. "You know what it is about him," said a woman scorer named, ironically enough, Liz Palmer, "He's always made us part of his game. And we like him for it."
"It's his smile," said another woman, a Palmer fan since she first saw him at an amateur tournament in 1948. She charts all of his shots each day and can tell you that in 1962 when Palmer won the tournament, "he never hit a drive under 270 yards." She has given up drinking until he wins another tournament, and she bristles upon hearing a pagan voice suggest that she may never have a drink again. "He's the same Arnie," she protests. "It would be heresy to think otherwise. He'll always be the same. What a super world it would be if everyone was like him."
Jeff Harman, a restaurant owner in Hawaii and a friend of Palmer's, agrees. "We went to my club once to play golf on a Sunday and there was a 1½-hour wait on the 1st tee," Harman says. "The 10th tee was open, yet even though the club officials said it was all right for us to start there, Arnold wouldn't do it. He waited his turn."
But it is hard work being a legend, and for most of the week Palmer's golf resembled a television picture tube with three images on it. Obviously he needed a little tuning. The Hope was the only tournament he won last year and even though he has finished third and tied for fourth in the last two U.S. Opens, he really has not played well since 1971, when he won almost $210,000. He played in just 22 events last year and plans to cut down to no more than 14 this season. The Hope was only his second start; he finished 71st the previous week at Hawaii. Nevertheless, he considers himself still to be a threat in major tournaments. Julius Boros won the U.S. Open when he was 43 and the PGA five years later. "I'm driving the ball well, but my irons and short game are weak," Palmer said on Friday. He was in danger of missing the cut for the final day after shooting a desultory 37 on the first nine Saturday, but he came back with a 32, made the cut by four strokes and had the throngs cheering again. He signed autographs walking between tees, and shook hands and bantered with people. About his perfect foil, a caddie named Creamy, he said, "If you caddied for Nicklaus, I'd win every week." In the pressroom he announced, "It takes me longer to wake up now. For a nine o'clock tee time I have to get up at five. Then by 12 I'm exhausted."
But he also had winning on his mind. Palmer cloistered himself each night at Ironwood, a new development he has in the desert, letting Jeff Harman tend to the salad while he grilled the steaks. He stayed away from the crush of local parties, held to his New Year's resolution to give up drinking and smoking and staked himself to the practice tee until his efforts wore him down.
None of this could diminish the rapture of his fans. The tournament program carried no fewer than 11 pictures of him, perhaps the reason it cost $1.50. Everywhere he went, people walked up to say, "You remember me, I'm the one who told you that you were going to win last year." Bermuda Dunes Country Club made him an honorary member. And on Sunday, even though he started the day 16 shots behind Yancey, the crowds were his, hanging on his every move and mood. Once in that final round a young boy, seeing Palmer and the adulation for the first time, looked up at his father and asked, "What's Arnie do for a living?" It was not a bad question.