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THE WORD FOR THE NEW YEAR COULD BE 'CHARGE'
It was an excellent day for golf. The soft midwinter sun worked its way through the smaze, driving the temperature up into the mid-70s, and Angelenos by the thousands turned out to watch the third round of their Los Angeles Open. The largest group joined Arnie's Army, some just to see the most thrilling figure that golf has produced since Bobby Jones, others to find out for themselves if there could possibly be anything to the stories that Arnold Palmer, the once incomparable Arnold Palmer, was over the hill.
What they saw was two hours of golf that epitomized the most exciting start a PGA tour has had in years. Palmer put on one of those all-but-forgotten streaks of miracle shotmaking that made him famous—the kind of golf that brought the word "charge" into the vocabulary of the game. He birdied seven straight holes, tied the Rancho Park Golf Course tournament record of 62 and all but assured himself of his first victory in eight months.
The next day he continued to behave like the Arnie of old. First, he was puffing on cigarettes—a secret smoker for a long time, Palmer has resumed on-course smoking after trying to quit since January 1964. Second, he got careless with his seven-stroke lead and let slip all but a stroke of it before steadying to finish with a 73 and a 72-hole 273, beating runners-up Paul Harney and Miller Barber by three strokes. It was Palmer the Performer on stage again, and the first question of the 1966 tour had been quickly answered. Palmer may have stepped out of sight for a time, but he hasn't gone over any hill.
Palmer started his Saturday by teeing off at 11:30 in the final threesome. He was paired with Dave Ragan, who was leading the tournament at this midway point, and Miller Barber, who was three strokes back. After a splendid 66 on Friday, Arnold himself was tied for second, just a stroke behind Ragan, so the final two rounds were bound to provide a clue as to what the future was going to hold for him.
There was nothing premonitory about the way things began. Palmer parred the first three holes, missing two of the greens but saving himself with good chips and putts. At the 4th he sank a four-footer for his first birdie, but a weak chip and two putts at the 5th brought him a bogey 5. Thus he stood at even par on the 6th tee when his fabulous surge really began.
Playing as he hasn't played since the 1964 Masters, he reeled off nine birdies, seven of them from the 8th through the 14th holes. The early stages of this tremendous charge seemed fairly routine. The birdies at 8 and 9 were on par-5 holes, both of which Palmer can reach in two if he must. The 9th at the Rancho municipal course is always a bit traumatic for him—it was there in 1961 that he had a horrendous 12, which is now commemorated by a plaque at the spot from which he sliced two fairway woods out of bounds to the right and then hooked two more out of bounds to the left. On this day, with a good score in the making, Palmer laid up short and safe with a one-iron. He then hit a weak pitch shot, but sank a 15-foot putt for the birdie.
At the 10th, a three-foot putt brought a birdie, but at the 11th he had to sink a 25-footer. A 10-foot putt meant a birdie at 12. Now he had five straight, with the easy par-5 13th coming up. A drive and a spoon left him just off the green, and another timid pitch stopped 15 feet short.
At this point the thought crossed Palmer's mind that once before in his career when he had a streak of five straight birdies it ended with careless play on a par-5. So he inspected every blade of grass between his ball and the hole, took plenty of time and then dropped the slightly curling putt. Looking extremely serious, he picked the ball out of the hole and stepped to the side of the green to wait while the others putted. Barber's turn was next, and as he was lining up his putt he suddenly broke out laughing. So did Palmer and Ragan. It was a spontaneous outburst that relieved the tension and made one realize that all three of these pros knew they were taking part in something pretty stupendous for golf.
"By the time I reached the 15th I began to get shaken by what was happening," Palmer said later. "After I pulled the ball into the rough there, I think I choked a little on the nine-iron I hit to the green." He left the ball 35 feet from the hole, and when that long putt failed to drop, the streak was over. Had he made the putt, he would have tied Bob Goalby's PGA record of eight straight birdies.