Arnold Palmer's tee shot struck a tree before it hit Leanna Kellogg. Its bite was much worse on the bark. But an astute fan in a golf gallery knows a brush with greatness when it glances off her hip.
"Did I hit you?" Palmer inquired along the 15th fairway Friday afternoon.
"Real hard," Leanna Kellogg replied, with a smile that said subterfuge.
"How hard?" Arnie asked.
"Let's see," Kellogg said. "How many zeroes do I want?" She would settle for a signed golf ball and a story to tell the neighbors back in Dayton. She had stopped a ball for Mr. Golf, and had a Titleist to prove it.
"I hardly felt it," Leanna Kellogg admitted later. "But I had to milk it."
Arnold Palmer is mainly a ceremonial presence at golf tournaments anymore, but he remains royalty. He is the one participant in the Kroger Senior Classic whose starpower is not diminished by his score. He shot a scrambling 76 Friday - five over par on the fogey-friendly Grizzly course - and it mattered to nearly no one.
Arnie is 67 years old, nine years removed from his last victory, but his galleries won't go away. Fans feel a connection with Palmer that is practically unparalleled in pro sports. They see him as an accessible deity, a great athlete who continues to make eye contact with the crowd. Four decades of fame, and many millions of dollars, have not changed his common touch.
"Arnie's a giver," tournament chairman Burch Riber said. "We went to dinner last night and he was interrupted 11 times. One woman came over three different times. And every time he smiled."
Truly, Mr. Nice Guy
There is an art to being nice to nuisances, and Arnold Palmer is its Picasso. He played Friday like Paul Bunyan, bashing the trees with his lumberjack slices, and yet his composure was nearly complete.
Palmer's tee shot on No. 2 struck a tree and came to rest in the middle of the cart path. When his tee shot on No. 3 knocked on wood, the ball caromed toward the center of the fairway. He then reached for a five-wood, only to have the graphite shaft snap in two upon impact with the ball.
"Oh, bleep," Palmer said softly, bound for his first bogey. He would get the shot back on No. 4 with a delicate birdie putt, and walked to the edge of the green to await his playing partners. Cameron Rademacher, age 11, asked for an autograph.
"When we're finished, son," Palmer said, at first. "After the round's over."
But Palmer could not bear to blow a child off completely. He studied Rademacher's T-shirt, which read, "Eat Your Vegetables," and asked if he practiced what it preached. Then he wrote his name on the boy's ticket.
"I'll sign, if you don't tell anybody I did it," Palmer said, conspiratorially.
Golf's best ambassador
This is how a young boy forms a bond with a sport, when a star takes the time to make him feel special. All Cameron Rademacher knew Friday about Arnold Palmer was "that he's pretty good." He will surely know more by the time he tells the tale to his grandchildren.
Each time Palmer plays in public, golf grows a little bit.
"I told 'em if I don't get Arnie, I'm not working," said Tom Tabar who served as marker for Palmer's group. "This is what I volunteered for. Arnie's been my idol for years. I took vacation so I could work this tournament."
Tabar thought his time well-spent when he watched his hero chip in for par on No. 6. A birdie on No. 9 would bring Palmer briefly under par for the day. His round unraveled on the back nine, which he played in six-over-par and ended double bogey-bogey.
"I felt pretty good most of the day," Palmer told media types clustered around the scoring tent. "I played pretty well on the front nine, and I felt like I might do something on the back. But I found more trouble than I could handle."
He will start today's second round 11 shots behind the leaders. Yet in a larger sense, Arnold Palmer is ahead of the game. Always has been.
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