Arnie, as Usual, Is the Main Attraction : Palmer Playing in Senior Tournament This Week at Wood Ranch Clubin Simi Valley

Times Staff Writer

Whenever there is an unusually large crowd in one area of a golf course, it's a good bet that the center of attention is Arnold Palmer.

Since he started winning tournaments more than 30 years ago, Palmer has been the idol of golf fans, and the long-running love affair shows no sign of deterioration.

For nearly three decades, Palmer's presence has assured the success of golf tournaments. What was so long true on the regular PGA Tour, is now true on the Senior Tour, but even more so.

Palmer, who hasn't played in a tournament in the area since the memorable 1983 Los Angeles Open at Rancho Golf Club, is the main attraction this week at Wood Ranch Golf Club in Simi Valley, where he is playing in the GTE tournament, the only Senior Tour event this year in the immediate Los Angeles area.

The third tournament in Southern California for the 50-and-older group is anticipating great success. The two previous tournaments at MountainGate Country Club were only marginally successful because Palmer had other commitments.

This year's $275,000 tournament begins Friday, preceded by a two-day pro-am.

Palmer has long been a favorite of Los Angeles fans. Besides winning the L.A. Open three times in the '60s, he had a memorable defeat here, too. There is a plaque at Rancho commemorating the three balls he hit out of bounds on the 18th hole that cost him a championship.

More recently, though, was the 1983 tournament, also held at Rancho because Riviera was getting ready to hold the national PGA that summer. Palmer was in contention throughout the tournament. With each good shot, he seemed to pick up more followers.

With their favorite a solid contender, just a shot behind the leader, there were 26,000 fans at Rancho for the last round and it seemed that 20,000 of them were following Palmer. With 10 holes left, Palmer was tied for the lead. The multitude was ecstatic.

"I can't remember when I've seen such an enthusiastic crowd," Palmer recalled. "They were really wild. I could tell they were dying to have me win another tournament.

"It is a special feeling to have that many people rooting for you. When I fell out of contention on the closing holes, you could feel the disappointment."

Several holes before Gil Morgan clinched the title, a majority of Arnie's Army had left the course, dejected and downhearted because their idol couldn't win.

Palmer endeared himself to the fans largely because of his exuberance and his go-for-broke attitude. Although he hasn't won a tournament since the 1985 Senior Tournament Players Championship, he seems to have the enthusiasm he has always had.

In the Vintage tournament last week at Indian Wells, Palmer finished nine shots behind champion Bob Charles. He didn't win much except the gallery. Most of the spectators followed his group, which included Chi Chi Rodriguez the last two rounds. They moaned when his putts failed to drop and they roared when they did.

"As long as I enjoy playing and the fans want me, I'll be out there," said Palmer, a 57-year-old Pennsylvanian. "In fact, I'm really getting excited about the Senior Tour. It's become another major tour. There's as much satisfaction winning out here as there is anywhere.

"When it first started, there were only a few of us who had a chance to win. But it has become very competitive. It seems that another good golfer becomes eligible every week or so."

The first two senior events here were known as the Johnny Mathis Classic. Palmer skipped them both to play in the regular tour's TPC in Florida. It is significant that there is a conflict again this year, and Palmer has chosen to play at Wood Ranch.

"I have been working hard to get my game in shape," Palmer said. "It's getting better. I don't really have as much time to spend working on it. Thinking about golf is as important as anything else.

"Sometimes I think it would be nice just to play golf. I'm afraid that won't ever happen.

"I have had to make some adjustments as I've gotten older. When I really want to let it out, I can't. I hit it hard but it just doesn't go as far.

"I have to find the time from a busy schedule to be competitive on this tour. In many ways, this is like the regular tour was 20 or 30 years ago. There's a more relaxed attitude, but the competition gets keener each year. Definitely, this is now a major tour."

It is the second one that should say thanks to Arnold Palmer for his part in making it a success. He brought the regular tour into the limelight and was the main reason television became interested.

The charisma and market value are still there. For that reason, Palmer is expected to be a participant in both of television's skins game events. He has already agreed to be in the new one, featuring four top players on the Senior Tour, which will be held in late January.

Palmer has played in each of the original "Skins Game" shows. The one last fall was the highest-rated golf telecast in 1986.

"I haven't been asked to play in the one this fall," he said. "But it would be something to play in both of them."

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