Change your view of Arnold Palmer for a minute. Stop thinking of him as an icon. Get past your sense of him as a rugged individual, chiseled from anthracite and baptized in Pennzoil. Picture him instead as just one of a group of guys—not a man apart. Share his pleasure as he settles onto the seat of a golf cart in the Florida sun, a Coke in one hand and a hot dog in the other.
"You eatin' hot dogs again?" The question comes from an old pal rolling by in another cart.
"First one since I've been sick!" Palmer says, managing to chew and beam at the same time. At 67 he radiates health and contentment. Eight weeks after having his cancerous prostate removed by surgeons at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, he's playing golf and flashing the famous smile. As his buddies are quick to testify, "He's still the same old Arnie."
He is. And, of course, he is not.
His good friend and dentist, Howdy Giles, chauffeured Palmer around Orlando's Bay Hill Golf Club in late January, when the golfer's outdoor activity was limited to putting and kibitzing. "I'm with Arnold in the golf cart," Giles says, "and maybe 40 guys come up and say, 'Hey, Mr. Palmer, how ya' doin'?' When we got back to the clubhouse, he said, 'It pisses me off. Before the surgery they called me Arnie. Now it's Mr. Palmer.' "
Nobody dies from too much deference, but Palmer had a point. His cancer seemed to be robbing others of their vitality. A sickroom mentality froze smiles. "Arnold Palmer is the John Wayne of golf," says Jim Deaton, Bay Hill's head pro. "You almost imagine him with a six-shooter and a wide-brimmed hat. We wondered if he'd come back with the same swagger."
Clearly Palmer faced a challenge. He needed to reassure himself—and others—that a tiny gland could not bring down a legend. He needed to regain his stamina. And he needed to restore not just a golf swing but a persona.
He needed the Bay Hill Shootout.
Picture a club within a club. The Shootout is a subgroup of Bay Hill's roughly 400 members, with a few dozen celebrities, touring pros and ex officio stalwarts thrown in. For a lifetime fee of $200, Shootout members gain entrance to a daily tournament, along with an inexhaustible supply of bonhomie and nonsense. When Palmer bought the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 1969, he started the Shootout. But he still had to pay his $200 to join.
The Shootout's "commissioner" is Lee Havre, a retired car dealer and banker from Ohio. A wiry character with a cola-colored mop of air, Havre has lunch every day at 11 at a table in the Bay Hill dining room, where he trades jibes with friends and dodges questions about his age. ("Lee," a club member once said, "I'm going to cut off one of your arms and count the rings.") Players who want a spot in that day's Shootout, which usually begins around noon, leave him messages or swing by his table. Havre then retires to the starter's shack, by the 1st tee, and makes up teams. Each team gets an A player (like Palmer or Tour veteran Steve Lowery), a B player (a 75-to-80 shooter, like Havre), and so on down to the D players, who shoot in the 90s. Team scoring is by individual scores—no handicaps—or by three-ball aggregate, with each player anteing up $30 to $50 for the winners' pot. Side bets between individuals or partnerships liven up the action and keep the little gray cells occupied.