The army met the troops at high noon last Thursday. As Arnold Palmer walked toward the 10th tee in the first round of the Bay Hill Invitational, his still impressive gallery blended in with the huge horde following Tiger Woods, who was about to tee off on the first hole. As you might expect when once and future kings collide, many of the old Army loyalists deserted the 67-year-old Palmer in favor of the 21-year-old Woods, and, indeed, the phenom rewarded his faithful with a four-under-par 68, one shot off the lead. Palmer, meanwhile, struggled home--Bay Hill is his regular club and the Invitational his creation--with an 81.
But 68s have become routine for Woods. Those who stayed with Palmer witnessed something far more singular. His round came just nine weeks after he underwent surgery for prostate cancer, and Arnie's brush with mortality served to remind people of his immortality. As he walked up the 18th fairway, the eyes in the gallery were as misty, and the applause as thunderous, as the weather in Orlando, Florida, last week. "I felt wonderful," said Palmer. "I feel very lucky just to be out there playing. That's the important thing about it. I even made [38-year-old playing partner] Fulton Allem a little mad because I outdrove him a couple of times."
Much more than coincidence links Palmer and Woods. They both live in the Orlando area, and, thanks to Mark McCormack's International Management Group, they are both richer than Croesus and maybe even Jack Nicklaus. They play with the same swashbuckling style. Woods was all over the course on Thursday, but as he said, "I got the ball in the hole somehow." Palmer's round came apart after he tried to hit the ninth green in two from a bad lie and pulled the ball out of bounds, leading to a triple bogey. "If I play in a tournament," says Palmer, "I'm still foolish enough to think that I can win." And though they are both fiercely competitive, they seem to like nothing more than a friendly game of golf with cronies. Palmer's doctors told him no golf for six weeks, so on Day 43 he was back out on the course. Woods enjoys playing with pros who live in the Orlando area so "I can take a little money out of their pockets."
Their most obvious connection, of course, is what they have done for the game of golf. In the American history of the sport, there have been four popular bookmarks: Francis Ouimet, the 20-year-old amateur who defeated British greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff for the 1913 U.S. Open in Brookline, Massachusetts; Bobby Jones, whose 1930 Grand Slam earned him a ticker-tape parade in New York City; Palmer, who teamed with television to bring golf millions of new fans; and Woods, whose galleries are not only larger than anyone else's but considerably younger and more variegated.
Palmer and Woods have been well aware of each other for years, but the first time they really sat down was in 1994, when Woods was at Stanford University. Palmer was in Napa, California, for a senior tournament, and he invited Woods to lunch. The meal became something of a cause celebre when it was revealed that the millionaire had picked up the tab for the student. Stanford, fearing the NCAA would strip its star golfer of his amateur status, made Woods send Palmer a check for his half of the tab: $25. Story has it that Palmer kept the check and framed it, but the truth is that he did cash it, more for Tiger's sake than his own.