Arnold Palmer hasn't won an official Senior PGA Tour event in 12 years. He won his last of 60 titles on the PGA Tour in 1973. At 70, he now struggles to stay near par in the rare events he plays.
But the King can still attract loyal subjects, even for a round with little importance. On Thursday, when Palmer stepped to the first tee at Newport Beach Country Club for the pro-am at the Toshiba Senior Classic, he was greeted by cheers from a gallery of about 500. Fans were four-deep around the tee, with a line of onlookers stretching 50 yards down the fairway.
It was the type of crowd the leaders usually draw during the actual competition. The leaders, however, have never included Arnie.
Looking fit in a tan sweater, gray slacks and white visor, Palmer pushed his tee shot into the right rough. He recovered by hitting his approach on the green 40 feet below the hole, then waited as his no-doubt-nervous amateur partners hacked their way toward the putting surface. Finally, Palmer took two putts for his par.
And so it went for much of the afternoon. At least 200 people followed him down the fairways, sticking with him until his last putt dropped after 5 p.m. For the most part, Palmer played solidly. He missed two par putts from inside six feet on the front nine, made a birdie from six feet on the par-three fourth hole and an 18-foot putt to save par after landing in the green-side bunker on the tough 430-yard par-four fifth.
He birdied 15 and 16 on the back nine, bogeyed 17 and missed a four-foot birdie putt on 18 to finish at three-over-par 74. It's nothing that will put him in contention in today's first round, but it wasn't a horrible result considering it was his first look at the course.
Palmer has never played in the Senior Classic, partly because preparation for the PGA Tour tournament he hosts at Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla., usually conflicts with this event.
When the Senior Classic was moved a week earlier in the schedule, Tournament Director Jeff Purser redoubled his efforts to woo Palmer. Obviously, the lobbying worked.
"The people who run this thing have been awfully nice to me," Palmer said, sitting in the clubhouse lounge an hour before teeing off Thursday, "and made me feel like I'd like to help them if I could."
Palmer undoubtedly helped attendance Thursday and no doubt there will be a similar crowd today when he tees off with Lanny Wadkins and Larry Nelson at 9:40 a.m. It will be the first competitive round he has played in Orange County.
Palmer, who had a 20-minute flight in his private jet from Palm Springs Thursday morning, said he is encouraged that his game is improving.
"It's a little better," he said. "It's not where I would like it to be, but it's been a little better. I've been working out pretty heavily and if I can develop a little stamina to get me through the tournament strong, maybe I'll do a little bit better.
"The biggest thing is keeping my concentration for 18 or 54 holes. That's difficult; my mind has a tendency to wander."
Of the three top rookies on the senior tour--Tom Watson, Wadkins and Tom Kite--only Kite is winless, but he isn't worried about falling behind.
"This is only my fourth tournament," Kite said. "I'm going to play a number of years out here on the senior tour and I'm going to play quite a few tournaments. So I think before it's all said and done, I'll get my blows in."
Kite tied for ninth in his senior tour debut, then finished tied for 20th and 12th. He said he has struggled a bit with his short game, but that it seems to be improving.
"I've really seen some signs the last couple of weeks that it's starting to come back," Kite said. "I'm hitting some wedges close to the pin and I've hit some wonderful bunker shots."
John Jacobs, runner-up to Gary McCord in the 1999 tournament, made a hole-in-one on the eighth hole during the pro-am Thursday. Jacobs holed the 201-yard shot using a five-iron, on the way to a two-under-par 69.
Tom Wargo, who won last week's tournament in Sarasota, Fla., was the low pro, shooting 66. Jim Ahern and Jim Thorpe shot 67.
Stewart Ginn was disqualified from the tournament after failing to show for his pro-am tee time at 7:15 a.m. Thursday. Alternate Frank Conner filled Ginn's spot in the field.