Disclosing a new technique that has made his unbelievable tee shots even better, Arnold Palmer this week carried his siege of the professional golf tour to the Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth. Everything he did there was, as usual, somewhat larger than life-size. His response to challenge was ferocious. And, near the end, his ennui in the face of success was almost fatal.
Palmer had come for revenge against a course that had consistently humbled him, and he got it in full measure. Even if victory nearly escaped him, as he was carried to a playoff by young Johnny Pott, his performance gave not the least comfort to his fellow pros. It was of the same type that enabled him to win three tournaments in five weeks, it was frankly awesome, it had his competitors talking to themselves, and golf followers talking about no one else.
He blew a three-stroke lead almost casually on Sunday to cause the playoff. Pott played magnificently through a Texas gale that day, shooting a 69 for a total of 281. Palmer and Gary Player, meanwhile, were still on the course and joking with each other over the ineptness of their play. "I got to watching Gary instead of thinking about the course, and I started playing badly with him," Palmer said later. "We began laughing about how badly we were doing."
Nor could Palmer even be serious when the tournament ended in a tie. "A playoff is like working an eight-day week," he told reporters. Then he handed happy Johnny Pott a dime and said, "I'll match you for it right now. Flip it." Pott did. Palmer called heads, it came up tails and Pott said, "Thank you, gentlemen," and pretended to walk out, which is, all things considered, a logical thing to do when faced with a playoff against Arnold Palmer. That Palmer went on to win the playoff by four strokes surprised not even Johnny Pott.
"It's getting so now that if Palmer doesn't win your golf tournament it hasn't been a success," Dan Jenkins, a Dallas sports columnist and golf writer, had said on Saturday as Palmer trudged up the 18th fairway with a score of 66 and a three-stroke lead as good as in his pocket. (No one was paying any attention to Johnny Pott, seven strokes back in fifth place.)
So at that point it looked very much as if the Colonial National Invitation could be a distinct success, just as the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas had been on the previous weekend and the Texas Open at San Antonio the week before that and the Masters three weeks before that and...
There was a time, however, when it seemed as if the Colonial might not meet the necessary specifications, for Palmer thought seriously of passing it up. "It gets to be a question," he said, "of just how long you can go out there and do your best."
His absence would have been a serious blow to the Colonial, which justifiably prides itself on being one of the more prestigious and better-run events on the golf circuit. It has traditionally been considered the last of the truly big tournaments before the U.S. Open, it is played on a severe and demanding course, and it has often served as an indicator on the form of the golfers as they get set for the big championship.
But what actually got Palmer to the Colonial was a challenge, and there is nothing like a challenge to stir the Palmer juices. For seven years the Colonial had beaten Arnold Palmer. It had held him to the paltry total of $2,937 in prize money. It had demeaned him into such rounds as 81 and 80, and his highest pro tournament score, a whopping 312. His average finish had been a woeful 23rd place.
"I would have just as soon passed it up," Palmer said last Wednesday. "But it kind of bugged me the way they said I couldn't play Colonial." Previously he had admitted that "it isn't my type of course. It confines me off the tees. I get mad at it and try to cram the ball in the hole and you can't do that at Colonial. You have to romance it." Thus a thoroughly challenged Palmer decided to come to Colonial and, though he may have called it romancing, what he actually did for three days was club the course to death, shooting an overwhelming 67, 72, 66.