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There is nothing artificial about Palm Springs, if you believe that life is just a crystal bowl filled with champagne, chlorinated swimming pools and six-car garages. The Springs resembles a giant wall clock where the little hand never moves past 1960, a land of fantasy with background music by Lerner and Loewe and starched-collar conservatives playing out their last few hands.
Its heroes come simple: the Country, the President and Arnold Palmer—for this is the kingdom and Palmer is the king. He has won the Bob Hope Desert Classic five times, once more than he has the Masters, and along the way his path has been sprinkled with flowers and kisses and bright, shiny things. "He is our Moses and he has led us through the desert to the promised land," says a grateful hotel operator. In the background the Chamber of Commerce chants "Hallelujah."
Last week Palmer was back in his personal shopping center, playing in the Hope, whistling while he worked. Each day he strolled with his adoring legions, passing out autographs, posing for pictures and taking time to sniff the flowers along the way. To women Palmer is all things: father, brother, son and the boy they were too dumb to marry. He sauntered arm in arm with them along the fairways and pecked their proffered cheeks. On Thursday he paused to kiss a 92-year-old grandmother sitting in a wheelchair. A little later he was confronted by a young, bold beauty with a yearning for legends.
"And what do you do?" asked Palmer, thinking she was a starlet or a model.
"I run a pest-control business," came the answer. "We take the bugs out of living."
Palmer mulled that over. "Well," he laughed. "You could put the sting back in me."
Palmer is now 44 years old and his hair is gray and thinning. He wears glasses and he has not won a major championship since 1964. The last two years he has been 25th and 27th on the money list, the only times since he invented the game back in the late '50s that he has missed the top 10. At all other stops along the pro tour he is an aging ex-champion, still engaging but no longer capable of winning the big one, perhaps not any one. But in Palm Springs reality dissolves and "charge" is still a part of the vocabulary. So it was that last week belonged to Arnold Palmer.
It did not matter that he eventually finished in a tie for 49th, 21 shots behind winner Hubert Green, on rounds of 76-70-74-69-73—362. Every day the bulk of the gallery traipsed after him, hanging on his words as if they were being read from stone tablets, and generally regarding the leaders as if they were bill collectors. Bert Yancey shot a 61 on Friday and during a radio interview between nines he said he hoped "some people would come out to watch." They didn't. They were all mesmerized by Palmer shooting a 74.
Said Ray Floyd, "As far as the fans are concerned, we're just a lot of other scores."
The Bob Hope is the anomaly of the tour, a five-day, 90-hole event played over four courses, between canyons, condominiums, Vice-Presidents, a sprinkling of celebrities and among three or four thousand high-handicap golfers with low-handicap bank accounts who can afford a $2,000 entry fee. Above all, the amateurs have an unquenchable thirst for a cameo appearance in the spotlight, like gnats buzzing around a light bulb. As one pro said, looking down the writhing, flailing line on the practice tee at Eldorado Country Club one morning, "They dress like 72, talk like 82 and play like 122."