Palmer picked up his 10th and final birdie of the day at the next hole, the 16th, but he almost sank a 40-foot chip shot for another one at the 17th, and his birdie putt from 12 feet at the 18th was headed right into the hole when it veered aside at the last second and stopped an inch away. Still, Palmer's 33-29—62 left him seven strokes ahead of Billy Casper, who shot a fine 66 to take over second place. Palmer's putting stroke, which had betrayed him for months, certainly seemed back again. He took only 24 putts, the least he has ever had in a pro tournament round. Very few people who saw his round will forget the expressions that crossed his face as he ran off his birdies. The determination and delight was visible from a hundred yards away.
That evening when Palmer walked into crowded Chasen's restaurant, the whole place broke into a cheer. He could hardly stop smiling all evening, for, more important than anything, he had proved to himself that the golf he used to play was still in him. "I was playing well out there," he conceded without any silly false modesty. "And I was really putting again." Earlier in the week Palmer had made a slight change in his putting grip, moving his hands up slightly on the handle and readjusting his position over the ball. He thought it helped, but what had really helped was the prospect of a new year and a rebirth of confidence.
Coming in the first week of January, the Los Angeles Open always serves to remind professional tournament golfers that they can stop worrying about their miseries of the past and start their careers anew, just as the Masters reminds them that spring is here and the Open tells them summertime has arrived. Beyond that, having last week celebrated its 40th birthday, the Los Angeles Open wears a certain patina of prestige, like the patriarch of an Oriental family, for it is now the fourth oldest tournament on the pro tour, after the PGA Championship and the U.S. and Western Opens. All of which made this an unusually good setting for Palmer's spectacular offering.
Before the tournament even got under way there had been an enormous amount of speculation about Palmer's future. Last year had been his worst since 1959 and he was considerably disturbed by the fact that he won only a single tournament—that one a closed affair with a limited field, the Tournament of Champions. For almost anybody else Palmer's 1965 would have been a bonanza, since he won $83,000 in prize money, but his official winnings of $57,770 left him in 10th place on the money list, an honor roll on which he had placed either first or second for the previous six years.
The significant thing about Palmer's 1965 golf was that for the first time since he rose to the top he putted like a normal man—or maybe even worse. As his wife, Winnie, said early in the year, "Arnie has suddenly discovered that every putt does not have to go in the hole." By July he was receiving hundreds of letters giving him putting advice, for everybody is an expert on how to make a three-footer. Palmer would experiment with his grip on the putter, the weight of the head, the angle of the shaft. He wondered whether he should wear a sun visor because his habit of squinting might be throwing him off. He was perplexed, his confidence was going fast and his fellow pros were giving him the needle and welcoming him into the ranks of the mortals. "It was not a good year," Palmer readily conceded last week.
In the end, the trouble may simply have been one of concentration. Palmer was unable to forget the day-to-day details of his impressive number of business interests once he was on the golf course. "I'd find myself walking down a fairway thinking about some deal I was involved in or remembering something I had forgotten to say to someone, or somebody would come up to me in the middle of a round and tell me that he had ordered four sets of clubs and they hadn't arrived or he couldn't locate the salesman for our company or something like that. Those are only minor irritations, but they get to you when you aren't playing well."
It was obvious to anyone who has been around Palmer very much that he was not at all pleased with himself. The brow was furrowed oftener than not. A lot of the old bounce had gone out of that purposeful stride down the fairway and he no longer looked upon a golf course as something to be cheerfully strangled to death. Often it seemed as if Palmer were getting strangled.
The contrast between that Arnold Palmer and the one who arrived in Los Angeles last week was both astonishing and heartwarming to those who like to see him win. He seemed years younger. In casual conversation his mind no longer wandered away to far-off private thoughts of his own, and he was playing his shots superbly.
Because Palmer can hit a ball so hard and far when he wants to, a lot of people tend to think something is wrong when they see his drives fall short of those of some of the other pros, as frequently happens now. To be sure, there were times in the past when he was outhitting everyone but, as he says, "I never have worried just because someone was outdriving me. I've always played with guys who could hit it farther than I could. But then, I've always felt I had a little something extra in reserve when I needed it. Still, there was a point a few years ago when I knew I was slugging too hard."
This year (and even as far back as the Ryder Cup matches in Britain last October, when he was playing some of the finest golf of his life and driving excellently) Palmer is hitting the ball off the tee with a good deal less grunt and strain. His is still a big, powerful swing, but it looks to be under more control than in the past. He is positioning his tee shots much better, and the loss of distance is unimportant.