LIGONIER, Pa. — The Arnold Palmer legend, perhaps golf's biggest, began just down the road a piece.
Palmer, given much of the credit for the success of the men's tour in the '60s and the Senior Tour in the '80s, was born in nearby Latrobe, nearly 60 years ago. Although he now plays out of Bay Hill, Fla., he has maintained ties with this area of western Pennsylvania, and still considers it home.
The people around here think it would be a fitting climax to a magnificent career if Palmer won the U.S. Senior Open, which begins today at Laurel Valley Golf Course, a lush tree-lined layout that Palmer had a hand in developing in 1957 and has redesigned in recent years.
He tends to agree.
The King, as he is called by his fellow pros, heads a field of 150 that will tee off in the United States Golf Assn.'s 10th annual $450,000 72-hole tournament for the 50-and-older set. The field includes Gary Player, winner of the last two Senior opens; Chi Chi Rodriguez, three-time winner Miller Barber, Bob Charles and last week's first-time winner on the Senior Tour, Jim Dent.
Palmer is known for his loyal followers, but Arnie's Army pales in comparison with the way the people of this region respond to him. He is more than a king, he's almost like a god to them.
During a practice round, he had several thousand in his gallery. And it seemed that he knew everyone. They either knew him when he was growing up or are children of people who did. He posed for pictures with anyone who asked and still managed to break par by a stroke, shooting a 71.
Half the cars in the area have Arnold Palmer's name on them, since he owns two automobile agencies. He also owns considerable farmland and the Latrobe Country Club, where the Palmer legend began. His father, both pro and greens keeper for the then-nine-hole course, cut down clubs for his 4-year-old son, who made the most of his opportunity.
It disturbs Palmer now that, although he won almost every tournament he played around here when he was young, he hasn't won here as a pro.
He is playing well and says he feels great, but it still would be something of a miracle if he won this tournament. He has acted as a gracious host, has helped get the course in perfect shape. In addition, he has sat still for press conferences and attended numerous functions, including one Tuesday night when the USGA, with Bob Hope as emcee, honored him. He also admits to being a little nervous, recalling another appearance here.
The PGA Championship was played at Laurel Valley in 1965. On the very first hole, a marshal moved a railing from a bridge, affording Palmer a clear shot to the green.
"Five holes later, they told me I had been given a two-stroke penalty," he said. "They told me I should have stopped the marshal. Later, I drew another penalty for teeing off on the wrong marker. What a start."
Major events have also been held at Oakmont CC in Pittsburgh and Palmer, a member there as well as at Laurel Valley, has not had good fortune. In the U.S. Open of 1962, he three-putted 10 times in 72 holes, enabling a youngster named Jack Nicklaus to tie him, then lost the 18-hole playoff.
"I am trying a different approach this time," he said. "Tomorrow when I go out there, I'm blocking everything out. I'm clearing my mind of everything except golf.
"I can hardly wait to get started now that everything else is out of the way."
There is one advantage Palmer has. He knows the course better than any of his rivals.
"If I hit the ball well, it will be an advantage," he said. "I'll be able to place the ball in the best positions. If I'm not, it won't help at all."
Although he hasn't won a tournament this year, he has been playing well. He had three rounds under 70 at the senior TPC a couple of weeks ago, but then a 75 ruined his chance of winning.
"I hit four balls into the water and that ruined me," he said. "I had been experimenting with a new grip."
In a tune-up Tuesday, Palmer played with an old friend, Tommy Smith, an amateur. They started playing together nearly 50 years ago at Latrobe.
"At that time, this place was a farm, later used strictly for pheasant hunting," Palmer said. "In 1957 we started building a golf course and it opened in 1959. I have redone 14 of the 18 greens and rebuilt three holes. The changes did not make it any easier than it was when the PGA was played here."
This is by far the largest field in any Senior Tour event, but it is not the most competitive. There are 41 amateurs who have qualified. Many of the top players are not here for various reasons, one being that this is the only tournament in which the players must walk.
Among the missing are Walt Zembriski and Billy Casper, co-leaders of the first round last year. Zembriski arrived Monday only to learn his father had died and he immediately returned to New Jersey. Casper has high blood pressure and has been ordered to rest.
Others not here include Gene Littler, 13th on the money list; Lee Elder, Gay Brewer and Homero Blancas, a recent winner on the tour.
Palmer, who has given up hope that his crusade to have the seniors walk at all the tour events, scoffs at the idea some of them are too old to walk.
"Tell that to Jug McSpaden," said Palmer. "He'll be 82 next month and he played two rounds in the heat and humidity. He'll walk the 72 holes because he takes care of himself."
Jerry Barber, 73, is also ready to go the distance, even if the temperatures are in the 90s and the humidity close to 100%
With fields limited to 72 players, there is no cut on the senior tour except in this tournament. The 60 lowest scores and ties after 36 holes will play the last two rounds.