So competitive is Palmer that it matters little to him whom he's playing. Payne Stewart, who lives nearby and sometimes plays in the Shootout, brings a gleam to Palmer's eye, but so does a cackling contractor with a deep tan and a pale left hand. "This is good for me," Palmer says. "There are so many good players at Bay Hill that you can always find someone as good as you are."
Palmer's caddie puts it more strongly. Watching his boss crack up with laughter over something said on the 6th tee, Sturgill says, "This is more important to him than being on tour. He loves these people."
They love him back, of course.
By early March, Palmer was certain he would be strong enough to play in next week's Masters, extending a string of appearances unbroken since 1955. He was almost as confident that he could play in the Bay Hill Invitational, the lour event he hosts every March. "Look out, Tiger Woods!" he crowed, watching a practice putt curl toward the heels of Sturgill's toed-out feet.
Palmer's Shootout pals saw his comeback in a different light. They were less concerned with what Arnie was scoring than with what he was saying. They studied, not his spine angle at address, but his posture in moments of reflection. And as far as they could tell, Palmer's comeback was well ahead of schedule. He had resumed part of his exercise routine, which includes 300 to 500 stomach crunches before breakfast. He was back behind his desk every morning, answering correspondence and making business decisions. He filmed a Pennzoil commercial one morning, made a cancer-awareness spot the next. He asked a staffer to rent a helicopter for a quick jump to a golf resort near Tampa so he could look in on his Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. ("You can go with me," he joked. "That way I know you'll get a good helicopter.") Palmer swore to his friends, as he has for years, that he intended to slow down. "I'm really going to this time," he told Havre. "I'm going to play golf every day. I'm going to go to the movies when I want to. "
"But I haven't seen any signs of it," Havre says with a snort. "He hasn't changed. Never will change."
Palmer's vitality is of more than passing interest at the Bay Hill Lodge, where the likelihood that resort guests will see Arnie is a bigger selling point than the speed of the greens. Framed photographs and paintings of the King hang everywhere, and Palmer memorabilia fill display cases. It's common for a 20 handicapper on the range to find himself practicing alongside a man who has won four green jackets, two claret jugs, a U.S. Open and 60 Tour events.
The Shootout guys are no less awestruck. Says Deaton, "Even though they're used to him, there's a change in the electricity when he's here."
Recognizing the effect Palmer has on people, Havre judiciously juggles the pairings. Sometimes it's to please Palmer, who may request that he be teamed with a visiting friend or celebrity. Just as often, golf with Arnie is arranged for sentimental reasons. Havre recently paired Palmer with 29-year-old Patrick Sugrue, a Bay Hill assistant pro who caddied for Palmer at last year's Bay Hill Invitational. "I never thought I'd get to play with Mr. Palmer," said Sugrue, following the older golfer's every move with the eyes of an acolyte. In the same group, but from the opposite end of the age and power scale, Sprint elecommunications executive Don Poynter echoed Sugrue's enthusiasm. Yes, Poynter confirmed, he was recovering from five mild heart attacks, open-heart surgery and the recent replacement of a toe joint—but the sun was shining, the grass was springy underfoot, and he was playing golf with Arnold Palmer. Poynter grinned. "You don't think I've died and gone to heaven?"
Two weeks before the Bay Hill Invitational, this theme of grown men chasing ecstasy on borrowed time turned intense. Havre paired Arnie with 37-year-old Jay Williams, an insurance agent who had recently had a seizure and collapsed at the Bay Hill pool. In four days, Havre told Palmer. Williams would have a malignant brain tumor removed. Thinking optimistically, Williams had gone to Circuit City that very morning and bought a 60-inch television. During his convalescence, he planned to watch the NCAA basketball tournament and Palmer's return to tournament golf.