The evidence comes from the man who does know, Arnold himself. Though Arnold may be the epitome of boldness to his Army, he is as susceptible to self-doubt as any thinking man. The bad year of 1965—in which he won only one tournament—caused him to do a lot of thinking about his golf game. He began to wonder, to himself, if he had forgotten how to win, if the resolution that victory requires had somehow stolen away. "I began to think I was afraid to win," he told me not long ago on one of the few occasions when I have heard him get reflective about the inner workings of his game. "I would get close, and my hands would begin to shake—don't let anybody ever tell you they don't get nervous out there—and I just didn't think I could win. I seriously didn't know if I was ever going to win again." What he then began to do, to use Arnold's phrase—and it is a very good one—is "Hogan it." At the age of 35, bold, daring, attacking Arnold Palmer decided he was going to become a smart golfer, fade a little shot in here, punch a little approach in there, keep it away from those trees by cutting a three-wood instead of banging a driver, going for the right corner of the green because that is the percentage play. If Hogan, the brilliant strategist, could plot out every move around a course, why couldn't Palmer? Well, he couldn't, because the whole concept was foreign to his nature. His golf game is distinctively his, and it is the only game Palmer will ever have.
By late fall of 1965 Arnold was as unsure of his golf as he has ever been in his life. He came home to Latrobe, he recalls, and "I knew 1966 had to be different. Had to be. Every morning I would get out of bed and go downstairs and exercise; working on my strength. By the time of the first tournament, the L.A. Open, I was never so determined to win. I felt I had to win."
Arnold played the 1966 L.A. Open beautifully, going into the last round with a seven-shot lead. But once again he started thinking, started trying to maneuver the ball, be cagey, be delicate, be smart. With four holes left he had lost six strokes of his lead. "I finally stopped trying to Hogan the ball," he says. "Here I had it won, and was so damn afraid of losing I didn't know what to do. I just told myself. 'Play it your own way,' and I managed to win."
When he won at Los Angeles he finally had survived what had become a first-class case of final-round staggers, but it was not until late 1966—the demoralizing U.S. Open at Olympic behind him—that Arnold felt he had at last beaten his tendency to Hogan it. The apparent cure came at what proved to be a crucial tournament for him, the Houston Champions International. There he took the lead on the last day, only to lose it to Gardner Dickinson by once more attempting to play two or three too-smart shots early in the back nine while thinking about trying to protect his advantage.
"I have always been a big scoreboard watcher," he recalls. "But I have a new system now. I just look at the numbers on the board, not the names. I kind of cock my head so I can't see the names that go with them. I knew I was nine under par at this point that day at Houston. I looked at a scoreboard and I saw my big red 9 at the top. Then I started down the line and I didn't see any numbers really close and I thought, 'Everything's O.K., even though I have just had a bogey.' Then, right at the bottom—another red 9. I didn't know it was Dickinson, I deliberately didn't look to see who it was. I just told myself then and there, 'Never mind who it is and never mind being smart. Let's hit hell out of the ball and beat him.' "
A few minutes later, on the 18th hole, Palmer drilled a long iron right at a pin that was tight behind a bunker on the right side—Palmer's bad side, since he normally moves the ball right to left. It was one of those hitch-up-the-pants-and-bash-the-ball shots. It wasn't smart, it wasn't cozy, but it was a killer. Then he sank what may well be one of the critical putts of his career, a 12-footer for a birdie to beat Dickinson.
To understand how important these 1966 wins at Los Angeles and Houston were is to appreciate that Arnold is not just a golfing machine. What is more—win or lose—it has now been proved that he has to be an aggressive golfer. Regardless of what his critics say, he has no choice.
One result of his attitude toward the game has been the legendary Palmer finish, and note that at this point I say "finish," not "charge." In two tournaments, the Masters and the Open, Palmer has provided more spectacular happenings than all of the golfers who have gone before him. Just think about his performances at Augusta: knowing the embedded-ball rule leads to his 1958 win; in 1959 he takes a triple bogey on the 12th hole, just enough to let Art Wall beat him when Wall birdies five of the last six holes; in 1960 he birdies the last two holes to beat Ken Venturi by a stroke; in 1961 he needs a par for a win on 18 and takes that incredible double bogey out of the bunker to lose to Player; in 1962 he fritters away a last-day lead until he needs two birdies on the final three holes to tie, sinks a wedge on 16, birdies 17 and then wins the playoff the next day after being three strokes behind at the turn.
Enough? How about the U.S. Open? A stretch of six birdies in seven holes and the best finish in Open history to win at Cherry Hills in 1960; three-putting 10 times in 1962 at Oakmont, including once from eight feet just after he took the lead, and finally losing a playoff to Nicklaus (this, in Arnold's opinion, was the best Open he ever played); hitting a ball into that tree stump while losing in a playoff at Brook-line in 1963. And then—ah, yes—1966 at Olympic Country Club in San Francisco, the most shocking finish in the history of golf.
Arnold has never talked, publicly and in detail, about what happened on that last nine at Olympic, but he explained it to me a week after the tournament. I think his assessment is an accurate one, and it says a great deal about how he plays the game.