The roster of regulars includes Tom (Two Beer) Bernier, Pete (Zorro) Groux and Bob (the Hammer) Jack—an attorney whose knees click like castanets and whose golf bag is decorated with the scales of justice, tipped to the right. One player got his nickname when Deaton, unable to pronounce the name off a list, called out "Ron...Alphabet?" Ron Azarewicz thrust his hand in the air and said, "I'm here!" Now his bag tag reads RON ALPHABET. Another regular, Dick Simmons, once missed a putt so badly that an onlooker sniped, "Try to get it closer than Edward Scissorhands." To his chagrin, Simmons is now stuck with the name.
"We're just a bunch of kids in grown-up bodies," says Jack. And like most kids, they love their toys. The 14-club limit is waived for Shootouts, and some players carry more hardware than a True Value store. (Havre's bag recently choked on eight Callaway metal woods, 12 Top-Flite irons, a putter and an orange ball retriever.) In the same spirit of excess, wrinkled golf gloves dangle like Tibetan prayer flags from the roof supports of their carts.
It was to this temple of male bonding that Palmer hastened after his January surgery. In the early days of his recovery, when swinging a club was forbidden, he followed Shootout matches in his cart, snapping eight-frame-per-second sequence photos with his new Nikon F-5 camera, which he purchased from Nikon vice president John Clouse. ("That camera's meant for professionals," pointed out Giles, an accomplished photographer. "Well, I'm a professional," deadpanned Palmer.) By late January, Palmer could leave the cart for short walks and practice his chipping with the banter of his buddies in the background.
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the waiting ended. Palmer told the commish that he was ready, and Havre—who shares Palmer's birthday of Sept. 10 and who, coincidentally, had his own prostate removed eight years ago—wrote "A. Palmer" on the pairing sheet. Palmer shot 80 his first time out, and although the score was not released, word of his return spread around the world through the media. Within days he had fired a pair of 70s over the familiar Bay Hill layout.
Most of his rounds, though, were sloppier, with spells of weak hitting and aimless putting. "I don't know if I'm tired or my brain just goes out," Palmer said in mid-March, walking down the 3rd fairway. His caddie, Mike Sturgill, cruised the right side of the hole in a cart laden with two green staff bags and 40 or 50 clubs. "I ask the doctors about it," Palmer went on, "and they say, 'Be patient.' But they say that about everything."
On the practice range that day Palmer seemed almost nostalgic. He hit long irons and watched the balls draw toward the target, as remembered, and then drop 15 yards short. "Not a lot of steam in them anymore," he said, sighing deeply.
"The steam will come back," said George Nichols, chairman of the Arnold Palmer Golf Company.
A couple of swings later Palmer got his body through the ball, and the shot pleased in the remembered way, dropping far down the range. "There it is, George," he said. "There it is."
Palmer's friends were used to his swing moods (not to be confused with his mood swings). When he returned to his Bay Hill condo last fall, after a summer of pallid competition at his home in Latrobe, Pa., Palmer found himself being outdriven consistently by Shootout rivals such as Bill Damron, father of Tour rookie Robert Damron. And never mind that Damron was doing it with an overlength driver that couldn't fit sideways in a pickup truck. "I don't like to be outdriven, even if it's by John Daly," Palmer told Deaton. "It bothers me."
"You could see the determination in his face," recalls Deaton. Focusing on his legs and his shoulder turn, Palmer added flexibility exercises to his already vigorous workout program. "And within a week," Deaton says, "he was hitting it noticeably farther."