Arnold Palmer will be at Southern Hills, too, but unlike Bolt he had to earn his way there by battling 127 other players, many of them young touring pros, for one of 40 available spots in Charlotte, N.C. Friends had advised him to choose the Johnstown, Pa. qualifying site instead. Thirty-six players were trying for five spots there, and although the odds were worse, the competition was weaker. But Palmer had been in Charlotte for the Kemper Open and decided to stay put. Besides, he never could resist a challenge.
Thus, on a muggy morning last week, temperature headed toward the 90s, Palmer set out to play 36 holes. He arrived at the Charlotte Country Club at 7:30, the dew still heavy on the fairways. Lanny Wadkins was just leaving the practice tee and they nodded solemnly to each other. Wake Forest '51 to Wake Forest '72. Palmer hit a wedge and massaged his back, a problem these days. After a few more shots he ambled over to the putting green, where a robust man in a bright orange shirt was practicing.
"Mike Souchak," roared Palmer, and the two stood for a moment holding each other's shoulders. Souchak seemed to have won the 1960 Open until Palmer came charging home with a last-round 65.
Minutes later, on the first tee, Palmer greeted one of his playing partners, John Schlee. "Arnie, you remember the last USGA event we were together in?" Schlee asked.
June 19, 1977
Palmer nodded, a wry look on his face.
"Oakmont, 1973, last round of the Open," Schlee said. "We were tied for the lead, and all of Pennsylvania was shouting, 'Go, Arnie, go!' Then along came Johnny Miller." What Palmer had done to Souchak, Miller did to Palmer.
At Charlotte, Palmer's first two shots looked like those of a man bent on shooting 90—a drive into a fairway bunker followed by a line drive into another. He now had no chance to get the ball close, the pin sitting on a narrow strip of green, but he did just that with a spectacular shot that landed in the rough, took one hop and dribbled up close. Tap-in par.
After that it was clear sailing, vintage Palmer except that not as many putts dropped as once did. He finished the morning round at even-par 71, was driven by friends to Myers Park Country Club a few miles away, grabbed a sandwich and was off again, nearly driving the 1st green and making a birdie.
Winnie Palmer appeared. She said 36 holes was a little much, but she would do the 18, even though people were wilting in the heat. She and Arnie have built a house in Charlotte, she said, where they have growing business interests. Besides, their daughters Peg and Amy are at college, so there is no reason to be in Latrobe, especially in winter.
By now Palmer had collected a gallery of perhaps 100, most of them walking side by side with him down the fairways. After nine holes he was still one-under, and when he had finished the 17th he was two-under and clearly headed for his 25th consecutive U.S. Open.
As Palmer waited to tee off at 18 the sky suddenly blackened, thunder sounded and a strong wind gusted. Palmer hit his drive and sprinted after it. As he hit his second shot rain began to fall. Again Palmer raced after the ball. The wind was now blowing leaves and small branches across the course, and the flagstick at the 18th green was bending low. Palmer, seven feet from the cup, stroked the ball and saw it blow seven feet past. His next, into the wind, pulled up short. Holing out for a bogey, he hurried inside the clubhouse seconds before the rain opened up full force and play was suspended—until the next day, as it turned out.
Sitting with Winnie, sipping a beer and talking with reporters, Arnold Palmer was clearly a happy man. Not only had he qualified—his 71-71-142 would surely be good enough—but he had beaten the storm as well.