Is Palmer Bidding Adieu to Rancho Park? : Golf: Course holds many memories for him, but tournament next week may be his last in Los Angeles.


He doesn’t admit it and his legion of followers won’t hear of it, but the man most responsible for making golf what it is today may be on his thanks-for-the-memory tour.

Arnold Palmer, 61, might have started the journey when he made his final appearance in the British Open in July.

Palmer had revived interest in the dying tournament 30 years ago. And when he strode up the 18th fairway at St. Andrews this summer, there were tears and raucous cheers. Palmer was ending that phase of his life at the place where the sport began.


There will be regrets, among players as well as fans, when he plays his last round in competition. He may postpone it a bit because Arnie’s Army pleads with him to continue.

After his contribution to the PGA Tour many years ago, Palmer’s presence turned the senior tour into an unexpected bonanza for the 50-and-older set.

As Chi Chi Rodriguez put it, long ago: “Every professional golfer should say a prayer of thanks for Arnold Palmer. That player also should give a portion of his earnings to him. Without Arnold, there isn’t golf as we know it.”

Palmer, who won the Senior Skins last January but hasn’t won a senior tour tournament since 1988--he last won on the regular tour in 1973--could be making his last appearance in a Los Angeles tournament next week. He will play in the $500,000 Security Pacific Senior Classic, benefiting Centinela Hospital’s Childrens’ Charity Fund.

It will be played at Rancho Park where he has memories galore--and not all good.

Most memorable was a 12 he took on the 18th hole on Jan. 6, 1961, at the city public course that for years was the site of the Los Angeles Open. Palmer was near the peak of his colorful career, and his failure there was so unusual that a plaque was erected to commemorate the occasion.

But there have been some outstanding moments there, too.

Before the event moved to Riviera Country Club, Palmer won the Los Angeles Open three times at Rancho. He came from three strokes behind in the last round to win in 1963, and in 1966 he shot a course-record 62. In 1967 he had an incredible 267 total and won by five shots.

Palmer followers will probably never forget the 1983 L.A. Open, held at Rancho because the PGA was being played at Riviera that year. It was Palmer’s last real bid for victory on the regular PGA tour.

After 54 holes, Palmer, then 53, was 10 under par and only one shot out of the lead. For the final round, 26,000 showed up, many to root him home.

With a 30-foot birdie putt on the fifth hole Palmer went into the lead. But putting problems, which have plagued him much of his career since, slowly erased his hopes of a victory.

He lost the lead on the ninth hole, and when it was obvious he couldn’t win by the 14th, most of the gallery left Rancho. Gil Morgan was practically without an audience when he clinched the victory.

“I’m looking forward to returning to Rancho,” Palmer said. “The 12 I made doesn’t come close to wiping out all the pleasant memories.

“I haven’t played well this year, but it’s mostly lack of concentration. I can still make all the shots. Physically, I am in better shape than in years. But I really do some strange things out there. Things you don’t do if you have the proper concentration.

“I am so busy these days, building golf courses all over the world, that I just don’t have time to practice. I am taking off on a 10-country tour to inspect courses, so naturally I won’t touch a golf club.

“But I will have some time to work on my game before coming to Rancho, so maybe I’ll do well. Physically, I am fine. One thing’s for sure, I will play that hole at Rancho the same way I did in 1961.”

The 505-yard par-5, a slight dogleg left, is the 18th for regular patrons of Rancho. But for tournaments, the nines are switched and it becomes the ninth hole. There is a driving range with a high fence on the right and a road on the left.

It was Palmer’s last hole of the second round on Jan. 6, 1961. He drove the ball 275 yards up the middle of the fairway.

“The plaque says it was the first round, but it was the second,” Palmer recalled. “I knew that I needed a birdie for a 68, and an eagle would put me close to the lead.

“I went for the green in two, using a three-wood. It soared over the fence into the driving range.”

Asked why he didn’t then play it safe, Palmer said, “Well, I still had a chance to make par.”

Palmer hit the next shot into the road on the left, then stubbornly hit two more out of bounds.

“I had to make a tough putt just to get my 12,” he said, laughing. “Instead of being close to the lead, I missed the cut.

“I think you could say there was no lasting effect. I won the next two tournaments on the tour and then had three winning tournaments at Rancho in future years. I’ve always enjoyed playing there.”

He admits to having an especially good feeling about 1983.

“That was a good tournament for us older guys,” he said. “Gene Littler, who was 52, led after 54 holes at 11 under par. George Archer, 43, broke the course record with a 61 and tied for the lead.

“I never saw a more excited crowd for the final round. In fact, it was almost scary, trying to get from the ninth green to the 10th tee. There was a terrible jam.”

Littler, Archer and leading money winner Lee Trevino are expected to join Palmer at Rancho in one of the last senior tour events this year.

As seniors, they have seen Palmer help change golf from a happy-go-lucky, elitist sport to big business for the masses, and now they see that raised social consciousness has accompanied that change.

Many of the top names in professional golf tried to ignore the controversy over civil rights that erupted before the PGA championship this summer, but Palmer couldn’t. After it was revealed that there were no black members at Shoal Creek where the PGA was scheduled, the senior and regular tours, the PGA and the USGA changed their rules governing selection of future tournament sites.

Palmer conceded that some private clubs would probably continue to restrict membership if they don’t hold public functions on their courses.

“If you are doing a public golf tournament, you bring the issue to yourself,” Palmer said. “If you have a golf tournament, you have to let the general public in. Such a course must make memberships available, no matter race or gender.

“I think the issue will be with us for some time. But ultimately, I don’t think it will affect the game that much. Golf will survive it.”

Palmer said he personally had never noticed much racism in golf, and had played around the world.

“I guess with so many more people playing golf, we’re being made more aware of it,” he said. “The game is growing rapidly in this country, but in Europe and the Pacific Rim, it is growing even faster.”