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The improvement in his putting and concentration could be most significant, and a basic change in his scheduling system may be responsible. "I've made some adjustments so I won't have to get involved in business details when I should be concentrating on a tournament," Palmer says. "My only objective this year is winning golf tournaments. That is what interests me. You can't go out there thinking about just finishing in the top five and not caring if you win. Sure, you may finish in the first five if you think that way, but you won't ever win."
The host of people who are involved with Palmer's own companies, plus those who hire him, have been told that, unlike last year, Palmer will not be available for meetings, dinners, phone calls, handshakes or even a friendly wink during the week of a tournament. Instead, segments of his schedule will be set aside solely for business operations. This week, for example, he is joining Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who were not at the L.A. Open, to film a TV show and has a full schedule of meetings and appointments. Then come a few weeks of nothing but golf, then more business.
Anyone looking for concrete evidence of the new Palmer could have found it during the pro-am competition at Rancho the day before the tournament started, when Arnold won the low-pro prize of $500 with a 67. Rancho, although a public course with little rough and few bunkers, is a severe test when it is stretched to its full length. In last week's early rounds it was playing especially long, for the area had received 15 inches of rain in the past two months, which is more than Los Angeles normally gets in a year. Rancho's humpbacked greens were their usually bumpy selves—the course claims to have more rounds of golf played on it each year than any other in the world—and, as Bill Casper put it, "If you don't get your approach shot reasonably close, you have a bogey staring you in the face."
In Thursday's opening round Palmer looked for a moment like last year's edition. Before he could hit his stride he bogeyed the 3rd, 4th and 5th holes and was three over par, missing putts of four, three and four feet in the process. He then settled down and brought in a respectable, if unimpressive, one-over-par 72. Strangely, though, he was not dismayed. When somebody asked him if he thought 1966 was going to be a different kind of year for him, the biggest smile wreathed his face as he answered, "It's going to be a lot different."
The next day, the second round of the tournament, Palmer got his 66, the best round of the tournament at that point. Even so, he had managed to three-putt one green. He talked about his putting that night at dinner, laughing when he said, "You know, if I were putting the way I used to, it would have been a 61."
Then came Saturday. "This tournament used to be played Friday through Monday," a hardened L.A. Open follower later observed. "But now they have figured out a way to end it on Saturday." And indeed they had.
So overwhelming was Palmer's performance that one tended to forget some of the other big pro tour questions, such as Tony Lema's elbow and Ken Venturi's hands and Gary Player's neck. Well, Lema's elbow, which has bothered him for six months, still does. Since early autumn he has been taking it easy and hoping the pain would go away. He has now decided to play himself into condition and see how the elbow reacts. If it still bothers him, he will go home to Dallas for possible surgery.
The unfortunate long-lasting drama of Venturi's hands may finally be over. Cold weather still bothers several of his fingers, principally on the right hand, so he will skip the Crosby and look to the warm sunshine of Palm Springs, Phoenix and Tucson. Then he will go home until it is time to get ready for the Masters. If his progress continues at its present rate, he might be completely cured by then. His 71-70-74-69 at L.A. definitely was promising.
As for Gary Player, his penchant for aches is exceeded only by his penchant for excellent golf. He will not join the U.S. tour until Masters warmup time and will doubtless be well enough to beat almost anybody.
Of the others it might be said that the year has come in golf when new names should be moving forward to challenge some of the familiar figures—the Januarys, Finsterwalds, Littlers, Sanderses and Heberts. Last year it was Dave Marr, Bruce Devlin and Al Geiberger who played their way into the first 10. This year some younger ones may make their moves: Ray Floyd, Randy Glover, R.H. Sikes, Dudley Wysong and especially Homero Blancas, who has assurance, finesse and a finely fashioned swing. His only drawback is that he does not hit his drives very far. "Far enough," says Palmer. "Far enough."