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Palmer at La Costa After 3-Year Absence : He Is Among 14 Players Age 50 and Over in $250,000 Senior Event

Times Staff Writer

Arnold Palmer is here, so already the senior division of the MONY Tournament of Champions is a success.

It has been 3 years since Palmer, still professional golf’s most popular figure, has qualified for the tournament that officially opens the golf season.

Palmer and 13 other 1988 tournament winners on the 50-and-older tour will play the first round of the 72-hole tournament at La Costa Country Club today, and an indication of the booming PGA Seniors Tour is the purse. Dave Hill won the rain-shortened 54-hole event a year ago and the purse was $100,000. This year it is $250,000 with $50,000 to the winner.

Palmer, especially with two of the stars missing, figures to be among the favorites. Bob Charles, leading money winner last season with more than $500,000, underwent a hernia operation just before Christmas and will be out for several weeks. South Africa’s Gary Player, who won more money per tournament than any other senior, elected to stay home.

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But Palmer is the man the spectators want to see. For the pro-am Wednesday, the weather was rainy and the crowd was not big. A majority of those who braved the elements, however, followed Palmer. He laughed and joked with the spectators and obviously was in the best of spirits.

It is quite a change from the way he felt in mid-September when he prepared to tee off in the Crestar tournament at the Hermitage Country Club in Virginia. It had been more than 3 years since he had won a tournament.

“I was about at as low an ebb as I had been in many years,” he said after shooting a par 72 in Wednesday’s pro-am. “I was planning to maybe play one more tournament.

“I didn’t really hit the ball that well, but my putting suddenly turned around. I didn’t make any spectacular putts, but I didn’t miss any short ones and was consistent.”

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Palmer shot a 65, making 9 birdies in his 7-under-par round, and led wire to wire.

During the 3 years, there were many tournaments in which Palmer wasn’t even competitive. After winning the Crestar, he continued to threaten. Although he said he had not always putted well, he has stayed with the Peerless Palmer putter he picked up at the factory in July.

Changing putters is an old Palmer habit. In fact, in the GTE at Simi Valley last spring, he used a different putter for each of the 18 holes.

“It’s easy to fool yourself into thinking there’s nothing wrong with your stroke, so it must be the club,” he said. “Confidence can turn you from a mediocre or poor putter into a good one. Right now I have the confidence.”

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With all 14 participants picking up prize money, Palmer just needs to finish the tournament to become a millionaire on the senior tour.

He would have made it much sooner, but he takes considerable time off from playing to build courses and attend to other business ventures. Since the ‘60s, he has built or had a hand in building 125 courses, with 54 more in the works.

“I always plan a light tournament schedule, but I always wind up playing more,” Palmer said. “I just can’t say no.”

For that, his Army is grateful.

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