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Arnie gets back into the swing

There were the usual winks and waves, and Arnold Palmer _ as he always does _ made all of his adoring fans feel as if he were greeting them personally.

He stepped up to the first tee at the Bay Hill Club and hit his ball down the middle of the fairway, received a standing ovation as he approached the 18th green, and reclaimed his place in the game.

The King is back _ even if his score does not match his standards.

Palmer, 67, made his return to competitive golf at his Bay Hill Invitational on Thursday, shooting the highest score, 9-over 81. It was his first official round since surgery for prostate cancer Jan. 15.

"I'm disappointed that I scored as bad as I did. But I was really kind of encouraged," Palmer said. "I hit the ball probably as solid as I've hit it in a couple of years _ even before the surgery.

"It was nice. It was great to be out there, even though I didn't play the kind of golf I wanted."

Most didn't care.

Paul Stankowski took the first-round lead with 5-under 67, and Tiger Woods drew a huge crowd and climbed the leaderboard to finish at 68 with Billy Andrade, Steve Jones and Fred Funk. But this was Palmer's day, one that those in attendance have learned to appreciate.

"It was exciting," said Scott Gump, who played with Palmer and shot 70. "It was a nervous first shot, but I was just trying to enjoy the day. It was such a thrill. He's such a legend."

That status grew because of Palmer's personality. Anyone who knows him realizes that a ceremonial golfer he is not. Nearly 25 years have passed since the last of his 60 PGA Tour victories, and it has been nine years since he won on the Senior PGA Tour. But being here just to wave to the crowd and say hello is not his motivation.

"My goals, as far as playing, are the same as they always were," Palmer said. "If I play in a golf tournament, I'm still foolish enough to think that I can win."

Palmer will not win this week, but before teeing off, he had won the hearts of his fans.

Six weeks after his surgery, he began playing again. He played 14 times before the event, taking a day off every five or six days. All of it was with his doctors' approval.

"I don't think I could have played in this golf tournament if I hadn't pursued it as rigorously as I have," Palmer said. "The only way I even got to this point is I walked and I exercised and I was out there hitting golf balls.

"There are some off days, and the doctors told me to expect that. But I feel very good again."

That has not always been the case since the surgery. For the first three weeks, Palmer had to deal with physical inconveniences that made just about any kind of activity impossible.

While counting the days until he could get on the course again, Palmer had time to ponder his past.

"It makes you think a lot about your life, what you've gonethrough, where you've been, who you've met. I've done a lot of reminiscing," Palmer said. "I've gotten letters from people I hadn't heard from in 40 years. It's nice. It was nice to hear them talk about some of the problems they had. It's amazing how many men are walking around without prostates and nobody even knows."

Palmer's confrontation with cancer did little to temper his enthusiasm for life and golf. Thursday, there was no laying up. He went for the flag on the par-4 eighth, found the lip of a bunker, and made double bogey. At the par-4 ninth, another tricky lie would have had others play safe. Palmer went for it _ and paid with a triple bogey.

There would be other stumbles, but that is to be expected.

"The major problem with the round was the lack of confidence in the shots," Palmer said. "That comes from not playing for a while. Maybe now that I've got a round under my belt, I can play a little better.

"It was important because I was playing. There was probably a pretty good chance a couple of weeks ago that I wasn't going to play. But it started progressing. And I feel good enough now that I could go play another 18 right now.

"I'm going to play (today). I feel good. And I intend to do a lot better than I did."

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