It could well be that Arnold Palmer has never played in a golf tournament more important than the 1965 PGA. This is his home course, and it was Palmer who was mainly responsible for bringing the tournament (which he has never won) to Laurel Valley. As he said after finishing his tune-up this afternoon, "I know a hell of a lot of the people here."
Yet it is not just that Palmer is playing at home in front of his neighbors and his family. He has won only one golf tournament in the last 15 months.
There are already those who proclaim that the era of Arnold Palmer is ending. But the man who is the most thrilling personality in golf since Bobby Jones and the best tournament player since Ben Hogan is not, at 35, ready to accept this judgment. Palmer will not allow himself to believe that Jack Nicklaus, 10 years his junior, is pushing him aside.
It is doubtful that anyone but Arnold Palmer could undertake four days of golf in a major championship under the load of distractions that he is carrying. The Palmer household, a place that is always as alive and electric as its owner, has been as harried as the mirror at a sorority convention ever since the week began. Yesterday was typical. Byron Nelson and his wife dropped by to say hello on their way from the airport. Dave Ragan brought his son Mike over to play with the Palmers' 7-year-old daughter Amy. Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tony Lema and Dave Marr all stopped by at one time or another. Winnie Palmer had hired a special bartender to come in during the afternoons of the week, and yesterday he was serving drinks until 9 at night.
When the last of the drop-ins had left, Winnie Palmer served steaks and salad to Arnold's lawyer-agent, Mark McCormack, and his wife, who were staying with the Palmers through the week, and Winnie's parents, in from Bethlehem, Pa., and the Ed Douglases from San Francisco. About 10 o'clock a friend of Palmer's from Cleveland phoned from the Pittsburgh airport to say he could find no transportation to Ligonier, which is a drive of an hour and a half. Palmer sent his pilot, Don Dungey, over in his Aero Commander to pick the fellow up and bring him back to the Latrobe airport. It was 11:30 before the friend reached the Palmers' house, but they gave him a drink before sending him on to his hotel.
Meanwhile, the Palmers' two phones never stopped ringing. Friends wanted them to know they had arrived. A stranger from Buffalo phoned to give Palmer a 20-minute lecture on positive thinking. A lady from North Carolina called with advice on putting. It was past midnight before Palmer got to bed.
This morning he was up at 8:30, and Winnie, who had already put the house into action an hour earlier, cooked him some eggs. Then he went into his downstairs workshop to grind and bend a few clubs, a hobby which is Palmer's equivalent of tranquilizer pills. By 9 Patty Aikens, his secretary, was at work in the small office just off the front door of the whitewashed brick house. Peggy, the Palmers' 9-year-old daughter who wants to be a swimming champion, had to be taken to the local pool for her morning workout. And Jay Hebert and Gardner Dickinson, on their way to the golf course, stopped by for a chat with Palmer down in the workshop.
Around 11 Palmer left for the course to practice. All the way down the 13-mile expressway between his house in Unity Township and the course at Ligonier, he could see that the countryside was with him. Signboards advertising local products added, "Good luck, Arnie."
At Laurel, Palmer picked up a practice with Hebert, Doug Sanders and Wes Ellis. Wearing a tan jersey and slacks and brown shoes, he looked as jaunty as a man just back from a rest cure. On five of the first six holes he was putting for birdies, but none of them dropped. He finally three-putted the long 18th—a hole that has all the golfers muttering to themselves—for a one-over par 36.