RALEIGH — Less than six weeks before his 80th birthday, Arnold Palmer spent much of Friday digging around in his golf roots and seemingly happy as a toddler in a mudhole during a wet summer day.
Dressed in a bright red N.C. State shirt and surrounded by many old friends, Palmer keynoted the opening ceremonies for the first on-campus course built by his course design company.
It's entirely fitting that Palmer's belated plunge into college course construction -- the Wolfpack's Lonnie Poole Course -- took place in Raleigh, too.
It was in the same city -- at nearby Carolina Country Club -- that Palmer and his Wake Forest Deacons teammates played their matches in the early 1950s and where his emergence as a force outside the borders of his native Pennsylvania first began to take place.
The school soon relocated from the Raleigh suburb of Wake Forest to Winston-Salem, and Palmer's four Masters championships from 1958 through '64 led to a popularity explosion for the sport while transforming him into an international icon.
But Raleigh, Wake County and all of North Carolina always have been careful to maintain the link to Palmer. That association has been a productive two-way street. Palmer's economic thumbprint can be found throughout the state.
The 7,210-yard, par-71 Poole Course, which was supervised during construction by Palmer protégés and Wolfpack alums Brandon Johnson and Erik Larsen, is a far-flung monster compared to the short, tight CCC course Palmer played as a young man. The 655-yard No. 11 hole offers a sweeping panorama of a city skyline that was essentially nonexistent during Palmer's heyday.
"It's grown a lot, but this area still has a familiar friendly feel to it," Palmer said.
Those words perfectly describe Palmer, too.
Yes, his hearing has slipped a notch, and he's slower to hitch his slacks and break into the quick stride that was once his competitive signature on the course and served as a scoreboard eviction notice for cohorts in the chase for an important trophy.
Purists would rate his short, flat backswing and exaggerated follow-through fertile ground for a disk rupture and a scorecard catastrophe.
So what's new? That swing is no prettier but just as unforgettable as 50 years ago.
For the most part, Arnie is still Arnie, too. The eyes remain bright and focused and his large hands steady and certain. The unwavering commitment to purpose is still there. So is the quick mind and magnetic personality that made him a national fixture for so long.
Referring to the Poole course Friday, Palmer repeatedly emphasized his pleasure with the product and his appreciation to the Wolfpack fans who provided funding and patience with a long project.
"Over time, it's only going to get much, much better with maturity," Palmer said.
With a lot of luck and attention, the course one day may become the same sort of ageless wonder as the man whose name is written on its blueprint.
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