He settled down in a chair in the press tent and flashed the smile that helped make golf a multi-million dollar business.

"I don't get asked for too many interviews anymore," he said. "Usually I don't shoot well enough to warrant any."

But for at least the first two rounds of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, Arnold Palmer had played well enough to quicken the pulses of all his fans. Could this be, they are wondering, the tournament that marks the return of Mr. Golf?

He shot a 69 Wednesday at La Quinta and came back with a 70 Thursday at Eldorado to put him just three strokes behind the leader, Bill Rogers. Of the four courses used for the Hope, those are the toughest and Palmer hardly tried to hide his delight over his start.

"I'm enjoying it," he said. "I'm not playing great but I'm playing good enough. I'm putting better and I'm relazed. I really like playing these desert courses."

With good reason. Palmer has won this tournament five times, the last victory in 1973 his last on the tour. Two other times he finished second. Even he seems to realize that if he is to win his 62d PGA event, this might be the place.

Palmer wasn't making predictions. Quite the opposite. He was trying hard to explain why a 48-year-old, gray-haired man can't be expected to produce the golf once shot by a 28-year-old phenom.

"You ask me if I'm satisfied with how I'm playing," he said. "Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have tolerated that question. I would have hopped on you.

"Before, I wasn't satisfied unless I won. I would have said to you, 'How could you ask me that: Am I in the lead?'

"But this is now, not before. I'm not happy over my play but I'm not upset, either."

But wasn't he playing good golf on some of his favourite courses?

"Yes, but you can't expect the same play that I used to produce. As you get older, your putting goes and then the rest of it eventually is going to go. We just try to hang onto it as long as we can. And some of us try holding on longer than others.

"My distances aren't that much off what they used to be. But I don't have the agility or the ability to tear up a course like I used to.

"That makes it harder to win, to do what I once did. Hell, I attack it much the same way, in my mind. I really go after it and try to pull it apart.

"But I can't do that physically any more. I want to, badly, but I can't."

Palmer was reminded that his putting, his consistenly good the first two rounds, just as it had been accurate when he finished fourth at Phoenix three tournaments ago. Wasn't that encouraging?

"Yes, I've even become the world's finest putter," he said, flashing that smile again. Then he laughed.

"Seriously, I am putting better. I've changed my putting stroke a little bit. It probably looks the same but I'm not quitting on them as much. I'm not breaking down my left wrist as fast as I was.

"But I never was a great putter. I guess I was a good putter because if you win a number of tournaments over the years, you have to be a good putter.

"I putted out of desperation. I putted because it was my salvation sometimes. I putted because it was the only alternative I had. If I wanted to win, I had to putt.

"But Nicklaus and I can't touch a Bob Charles or a Bobby Locke. I'd like to be able to putt even like Bobby Lacke putts now, because I'd win a lot of tournaments."

Palmer was in a mood to reminisce and he began by talking about the players he admired most.

He said the closest he had to an idol was Byron Nelson. "He did a lot of things," said Palmer. "He blueprinted his gold like Byron Nelson so that eliminated him really being an idol.

"If you have an idol, you are going to try to do everything he does. And I couldn't do that. I didn't want to do that."

He said he also admired Ben Hogan "because if you watched his life and watched what he did, he attacked everything he did. In his early days, he beat the golf ball, duck-hooked it most of the time. Then all of a sudden he changed. He became a student and started working at different systems of playing golf.

"Sam Snead, on the other hand, was a classic player. He just played. He was a farm boy. But he played the game in a classic manner.

"We aren't talking about personality now, we're talking about his swing. I could play with Sam Snead one day and watch him, not even say a word to him, and the next day go out and play as good a round of golf as I even could. It would rub off. Just the rhythm of his game was fantastic."

Snead and Hogan aren't in this tournament. They have bowed to advancing age and all but retired from the tour. But Palmer, despite thinning hair and an increasing bulge around his middle, plans to increase his playing pace over the last year.

"As long as I think I can compete, I will play," he said. "I see things out there I like, maybe because I'm working hard at my game. That's why I'm getting results."

The results since his last victory here have been increasingly less impressive. The last two years he hasn't even broken into the top 100 money winning list. In 1977, he earned only $21,950. The winner's purse alone at the Hope is worth $45,000.

"Now, I'm not thinking about winning this, not yet," he said. "I just want to make the cut and get a chance to play the final round."

The final round happens to be at Bermuda Dunes, where Palmer has finished off every one of his five Hope triumphs. What a day it would be, someone told him, if he needed just one more good round at Bermuda to win a tournament.

"Let's say I wouldn't mind being in that position," he said. "Not in the least."