AT his annual state-of-the-superstar press conference last month, reporters covering Arnold Palmer's tournament, the Nestle Invitational at his Bay Hill Club in Orlando, were hammering Arnie with retrospective questions, one of which hinted he was more statesman than serious player at this stage of his illustrious career. That was a mistake.
''What's the objective when you play?'' someone asked, perhaps expecting him to cite the honorary status he holds in the game.
''To win! What the heck else?'' he shot back incredulously. ''That's really why I play [in tournaments]. I enjoy it and I enjoy it sometimes when I don't win, but my philosophy about the game and playing it is not any different than it ever was.''
No different, in other words, than when Palmer came striding up the fairway 30 or 40 years ago en route to winning the Masters four times, the British Open twice, and the US Open once.
Palmer, who tees it up today in the Legends of Golf tournament in California (see related story, right), played in his 40th Masters several weeks ago but didn't advance to the final rounds.
Palmer's last victory at an actual senior tournament came in 1988, and he only pocketed $34,471 in 1994 prize money, placing him 91st on the list. His record, however, doesn't lessen his immense fan appeal. ''Arnie's army'' is as strong as ever.
John Feinstein, in his forthcoming book about the pro golf tour, ''A Good Walk Spoiled'' (Little, Brown), provides an insight into Palmer's charisma. ''When people call his name,'' Feinstein writes, ''he doesn't give them the Papal Wave the way most players do, he searches them out, makes eye contact -- every time -- and says something. 'How are you today ... Good to see you ....' ''
Despite Palmer's unwavering competitive drive, Fred Raphael, the Legends tournament founder, says he detects that Palmer plays for the pure pleasure it brings him. ''I think he realizes that he wants to enjoy himself now,'' Raphael says. ''I get the feeling from watching him play and watching him mingle with the crowds that he's enjoying himself more than he ever has in golf.''
Certainly he doesn't need the money. Forbes magazine ranked him as the fourth wealthiest sports personality in 1994, with $13.6 million in estimated income. Only Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Jack Nicklaus were ahead of him.
In writing of Palmer's numerous business activities, Nick Seitz, Golf Digest's editor-in-chief, says Arnie has shown athletes in all sports ''the gold brick road to marketing riches.'' He endorses everything from motor oil and rental cars to financial institutions. His latest entry into the entrepreneurial arena is the 24-hour Golf Channel, which he co-owns.
According to Gary Stevenson, the cable company's chief operating officer, Palmer has been at the forefront of three major developments in the game -- the growth of the PGA Tour, Senior PGA Tour, and televised golf -- and the Golf Channel represents a fourth (or an extension of the third, depending on your perspective).
Palmer was persuaded by cable entrepreneur Joe Gibbs to become co-founder of the Golf Channel. ''He liked the idea from the very beginning,'' Gibbs says, ''but he was very cautious.''
The two men became friends five years ago in a manner indicative of Palmer's folksiness.
Gibbs is a member of the Shoal Creek Golf Club in Birmingham, Ala., which hosted the PGA Championship in 1990. When the player scheduled to use Gibbs's guest house didn't show, the tournament director offered it to Palmer and his wife, Winnie, who canceled a hotel reservation to accept. The Palmers and the Gibbses ate dinner together most nights, and the two men spent hours talking while Arnold rewrapped his leather club grips.
''Arnold has a way of making you feel comfortable within minutes,'' Gibbs says. ''He and Winnie wanted us to come spend a weekend with them [in Orlando.]''
In July, Palmer is looking forward to playing the British Open at St. Andrews in Scotland.
Several years ago, without announcing it, Palmer showed up at St. Andrews for the Open, thinking it would be his last. ''I remember missing the cut [to qualify for the final rounds] by one shot,'' he says. ''I really wanted to make it and I thought I had.''
In 1960, he finished one shot behind Kel Nagle at the Open when it was played at St. Andrews, so the trip this summer will be full of memories. ''This really will be my last year to play in the British Open,'' he says, before taking one final question from a reporter momentarily thrown off track by this ageless sports icon.
Asked what televised golf was like during Palmer's youth, Arnold, who has played golf with six presidents, shoots back, ''When I was growing up they had just found radio.'' The press tent fills with laughter. Arnie exits.