Golf: Arnie casts a medal for his Army

The faithful at St Andrews can still be mobilised by the sight of Arnold Palmer, as Richard Edmondson discovered
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The Independent Online
It has been a busy time for star spotters in St Andrews. Sean Connery was in town recently and delighted those who like to append traits to nations by taking his meals in the local Indian, staying in a B&B and carrying his own bag at the golf course rather than employ a caddie.

Several of the town's bagmen were hired yesterday, however, as the R&A's Autumn Medal was played out with the unusual addition of one man, Arnold Palmer. As he promised at his final Open in July, the American returned for this prosaic tournament at the home of golf. "I've been a member of the R&A for many, many years [since 1979] but until you come to the Autumn Medal you're still a new member really," he said. "So I'm breaking out of that status."

Palmer was probably one of the few who flew himself to Scotland in his own brand new, 11-seater, Citation 10 jet. Now well into his sixties, Palmer has been flying aircraft for 40 years and trusts his skills in the airways have not diminished as much as on the fairways. "I sure hope my flying is better than my golf these days," he said, "otherwise I'm in deep yoghurt."

For some reason, organisers thought Palmer's attendance would be of little general interest. "We just wanted it to be a low-key day for him," Lachlan McIntosh, the R&A's administration secretary, said. There was more chance of the Queen going skinny dipping without drawing attention.

After early three-balls had gone off with just seagulls for company, there was the effect of the piper's call, and, by the time Arnie appeared, the army had been called up. At 10 o'clock the general was off with an entourage free from the customary tournament shackles of ropes.

Palmer's technique yesterday was, as it always has been, a thing of function rather than beauty. "His follow-through resembles a duck hunter tracking a teal," someone once wrote, and the army yesterday would have had it no other way. The trademarks were all there. The nervous hitching of the pants, the swing like a hammer thrower cranking up and a high finish with the club head making a halo over his head. There were plenty of others happy to deify him.

As the round progressed one of the followers grew in bravado, first calling the great man's name, then shaking his hand and graduating to the joint photograph.

When you are mega-famous even the simplest of actions take on astonishing importance. Thus the Princess of Wales has made the exiting of vehicles a compelling act and Palmer makes the changing of his golf shoes a transfixing occasion. A huddle swiftly developed yesterday as Arnie swapped a brand new pair for what appeared to be another pair that had just come out of the box. The poor man could probably never have dirty boots even if he wanted them. "He's the reason we're playing for all this money today," Ken Still, a fellow pro, once said. "I tell you what I think of the man. If he should walk in the door right now and say "shine my shoes" I'd take off my shirt, get down on my hands and knees, and shine away."

Palmer's was the only caravan on the links of St Andrews yesterday, like a wagon train crossing the American plains, and it grew with each passing hole. By the time he crossed the Swilcan Burn for the last time there were 200 behind him and others ringing the 18th green. The American, it was said, used to be able to stare them in, but there is a slight grey fog in the eyes now and even he could not deliver the birdie putt everyone wanted. He took 74.

Then came the hard work with men behaving strangely, looking as though their natural habitat was the boardroom. They felt it necessary to pass their camera to a bystander and sidle up to the great man, silly looks on their faces, for a shoulder-to-shoulder shot. They then jumped into BMWs or Mercedes. "Look at this," they will tell chums over a brandy at their gentlemen's clubs. "Here's one of me and Arnie."

Arnie himself behaved with customary good grace, like any great theatre player, conveying the impression this was his first performance. He chatted, he collected a bottle of whisky and he got writer's cramp. If there was a scorecard without his name on it in Fife last night it was a rare item indeed.

The manners are enduring, as is the self-belief and will to win. Earlier, in the clubhouse, he had described, as he waved around his great big hands, worn like a longshoreman's, how his game had improved with an adjustment. Two weeks ago, on his 66th birthday, he shot his age for the first time in his life in a seniors' event in Seattle. "I felt like I'd been doing something wrong for so long but now there is going to be a dawn at the end of the night after all," he said.

With that he was called to the tee and he marched out, missing the news that as he was a professional he could not win. Someone went out to tell Palmer, but by then he had gone. It was just as well really. He might have come back.