Arnold Palmer to girl at reception desk: "I understand you have a message for me."
Girl at reception desk to Arnold Palmer: "I may have, sir. What's your name?"
This is a true story; it happened last week at the Houston Open, about 4,000 miles from Houston in a tangle of trees and condominiums that is the aptly named Woodlands Country Club. It was just another of those $200,000 tournaments the touring pros play every week, this one won by Lee Elder, the second victory of his career.
But for Arnold Palmer the Houston Open was merely one more chapter in a continuing story: he appeared in name—or reputation—only, shot a couple of nonsensational rounds and missed the cut.
Palmer made modern tournament golf what it is today, and he will always be Arnold Palmer, whether or not girls at reception desks recognize him, but he was in Houston knowing he probably couldn't win, so there were only two logical reasons for his presence: he still likes to hit golf balls and he knows what his name means to a sponsor. Same old Arnold, spreading himself like mayo.
Going into Houston the following things were true of Palmer in the year of the Bicentennial:
1. He had missed the cut in half the events he had played in—Tucson, Orlando, Jacksonville and the Masters.
2. He had earned only $4,697.29 in prize money, which placed him 157th on the money list.
3. He had not won on American soil in more than three years.
4. He had contributed to the gallows humor of golf when, failing to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, which he once won three times in five years, he participated in the Tallahassee Open, a sort of satellite event.
All of this adds up to the worst season Palmer has ever experienced, so he paused last week to chat about it, having nothing better to do.
Arnold admitted he has been told by his fellow pros that there are any number of things wrong with his golf game. His shafts are too stiff, his clubs are too heavy, his hips aren't turning, he isn't "extending," he's not "turning over," "coming around," "holding on," "turning loose."
Moreover, he has been told by friends inside and outside the sport that for the good of America, his image, history, youth, democracy and the economy, he should quit, go on a lecture tour, become a czar, industrialist, movie star and all-round retired wonderful person.
There are only two things wrong with all that, of course. First, Palmer still loves the competition. And, second, he enjoys being Arnold Palmer.
"What happened to my game was subconscious," Palmer was saying last week. "Looking back on it now, I think I can understand it. About three years ago I relaxed mentally. I'd been in a dead run for 20 years and I thought I wanted to quit running. I wanted to keep playing golf, but I didn't want to prepare as hard mentally. And what happened was, it all kind of fell apart. Now I'm trying to get it back, and it isn't easy."
Arnold made no apologies for playing in Tallahassee. "When I missed the cut at the Masters, I felt terrible," he said. (He had shot a deplorable 81 in the second round.) "But I like Augusta and that's why I stayed around the next day. Then I went to my Florida home and I hit some balls on Sunday. I asked Winnie if she wanted to shag for me. We got in a cart and went out by ourselves to the 4th fairway. I hit about 400 balls. And I started hitting 'em pretty good. I said to Win, 'I think I might go to Tallahassee. They've been wanting me to come down there, and I don't like thinking about how bad I played at Augusta.' She agreed it would be a good thing for me to do."
Palmer would hit golf balls in a gravel dump if there were no place else to hit them, but it pleased him immensely that his presence in Tallahassee "made" the tournament. He shot a 63 in the pro-am, one of his lowest rounds in years, and although he finished in a tie for 15th, he lugged most of the gallery along with him.
Palmer said the reports of his quitting the game were greatly exaggerated, as the saying goes. "Quitting for me might be playing 19 or 20 tournaments a year instead of 30," he said.
Things keep happening to Palmer to remind him that he can still play golf. Were he out there doing nothing but missing cuts and humiliating himself, of course he would quit, he said. But that is not what is happening. Last year he won twice overseas, and while the British PGA and the Spanish Open were not titles to particularly impress an average touring pro, the fields in those tournaments are stronger than the nontraveler realizes, and Palmer won both events in his old-fashioned style. He came from five strokes behind in the final round of the British PGA at Sandwich and he eagled the last hole in the Spanish Open.
Something else that keeps stimulating Palmer is the way he performs in the U.S. Open. For the past four years our toughest tournament has brought out the best in him. Last summer he tied for ninth at Medinah. In 1974 he tied for fifth at Winged Foot, and was right in it until the final nine. In 1973 he tied for fourth at Oakmont, and in 1972 at Pebble Beach he was third.
"The one thing that's better about my golf game in the 1970s than it was in the 1960s is my driving," he said. "The Open demands a straight drive. There's no question I can keep the ball in the fairway better than I used to. I'm not as long, but I'm more consistently straight. Also, I think I get 'up' for the Open and work harder for it."
Everything Palmer did at the Houston Open was typical of the man he is. You start with why he went there in the first place: because one of his old pals, Doug Sanders, the director of golf at Woodlands, asked him to come and help with the crowds.
On Thursday, when the first round was rained out, Palmer went over to Champions Golf Club to see two more old friends, Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke.
In the delayed first round on Friday, Arnold commanded the largest gallery in the field, about 3,000, even though his one-under 71 was hardly the most talked-about score of the day. For almost every member of his throng he found the time to autograph programs, shoes, hats and napkins—ever grinning, ever gracious, ever Arnold.
He had a late starting time on Saturday, so what did he do? He spent two hours riding in a cart with Clyde Mangum, the PGA's assistant tournament director. They motored through the woods and lakes as Mangum made rulings and observed play. The players did double-takes when they noticed Palmer in the cart with the PGA official.
"Who's that you've got with you, Clyde?" Ed Sneed asked at one point.
"A trainee," Arnold said.
Perhaps predictably, Arnold was going to miss still another cut. His two rounds of 71-75-146 weren't swift enough for the swift pace. But what Arnold Palmer was and is and what he means to the game were best summed up by a conversation in the clubhouse Saturday afternoon.
A lady fan had just arrived and she asked a friend how the tournament was going.
"Hubert Green's in the lead," said the friend. "Want to go catch him?"
"I'm gonna watch Palmer," said the lady.
"Palmer ain't doing nothing," she was told.
Slightly offended at the news, the lady said, "Well, if Palmer ain't doing nothing, why in the world am I here?"
Although the general is making more bogeys than birdies, he still commands his Army.
Don't ask Palmer how it's going. It's not.