Nene Hubbard had this idea. She would cross the 14th fairway just as Arnold Palmer strode up it. That way she could get a glimpse of her hero up close. If she screwed her courage to the sticking point, she would ask to shake hands.

Nene Hubbard is 28, lives in Clemson, S. C., and is pretty. She timed her move precisely, arriving in mid-fairway the moment Palmer did. But she couldn't do it. How do you just walk up in the middle of the Masters golf tournament and shake hands with immortality?

"I wasn't going to say anything," Hubbard said later. "But then Arnie winked at me."

Which is how Nene Hubbard came to walk away with her right hand held in front of her. She stared at it and asked a stranger, "Do you want to touch my hand?"

"If Arnie wins this thing," she said, the words chasing each other breathlessly, "I will have a heart attack."

Palmer will be 50 Sept. 10. He has not won a United States tournament since 1973. The last time he won a major championship, LBJ was a rookie president and the Beatles owned the world. It was 1964. Jack Nicklaus has won 12 majors since then. Palmer has not earned more than $90,000 on tour in any year since 1971.

So who cares?

This is Palmer's silver Anniversary Masters, the 25th. Nowadays, he arrives at Augusta in his private jet. In 1955, a rookie on tour, he and his wife, Winnie, drove into town, pulling the trailer they lived in. They paid $11 to park for the week. Palmer tied for 10th in that first Masters, won $695.83-his first prop check-"and we never pulled the trailer again," he said.

Only Sam Snead, in his 40th, has played more Masters than Palmer. The golf tour was a half-million dollar proposition in Palmer's trailer days. This year, the pros play for $13 million. For that, the warriors in pastel owe a salute of putters to Palmer, who merely invented golf on television.

No game is more obviously unfit for the little screen. Golf is a game of depth perception; TV distorts distance. Half the thrill of seeing a golf shot is following its flight and anticipating its destination; on TV, the white ball disappears against the blue sky.

As terrible as golf-on-TV is, golf-inperson may be worse. Who among sports fans would pay real money to attend a Super Bowl with no guarantee of seeing the winner? What idiot would go to a World Series and be happy seeing only a simple play?

They came to see Palmer. They didn't care if someone else, working in another section of the 150-acre course, won the thing. They wanted to see the man hit a shot for them. Snead was all grace, Ben Hogan was all ice. Here came Palmer whacking the hell out of the ball, shirttail flapping. His face told a thousand stories per round, arranged for joy by a long putt or made to wince by fate's refusal of his will.

Bobby Jones made golf a cathedral. Palmer made it a sports arena. Whatever demons chased all of us from tee to green, they were after Palmer, too. You could tell by how hard he worked. You could see the pain. Nicklaus is the best there ever was, but look: Jack plays with his shirttail tucked in. How hard can this game be for him?

After five holes today, Palmer was five over par. A drive into the woods on No. 2 started him toward a double-bogey 7, finished sadly when he left a five-foot putt short and below the hole. Old age first destroys the small muscles that, 25 years ago, made Palmer a putter who would buy jet planes for himself.

Palmer then three-putted the next three holes. "Bad, bad, bad," he would say later. He missed a four-footer at No. 3 and, at the following two greens, left long putts 10 and 12 feet short.

By the time he made his second bridie of the day-knocking in a short putt at the eighth hole-Palmer was one of those poor souls once described by Bobby Jones as "dogged victims of inexorable fate." This game is hard work. Palmer's azalea-pink shirt was mottled with sweat. The shirttail had sneaked out in back. His gray hair flew in all directions.

Palmer made one more birdie. At the par-5 13th, he sent a three-iron second short screaming to the green.

The big muscles still work. Nicklaus shots are majestic, soaring into the sky and, like returning astronauts, dropping softly on target. Palmer creates rifle shots. They fly low and arrive suddenly. After the three-iron shot, Palmer two-putted for the birdie.

"Arnie's Army" first mustered here when soldiers from nearby Fort Gordon carried signs exalting their man. Only the most zealous loyalists still march every step, but Palmer is still the tour's most popular figure.

Shouted pleas of "whoa, whoa" went up when a Palmer tee shot rolled away from the 16th hole. At the 15th, where they have a pond, such reverential applause met Palmer's arrival that one expected him to walk across the water. In deference to mortality, he detoured around the right bank.

Done with his work, Palmer signed autographs on cap bills, blank checks, matchbook covers, cups and newspaper. A woman asked, "Instead of an autograph, can I have a kiss?" And Palmer said, "Sure. Where do you want it?" It went on her left cheek.

A man called Palmer away from some putting practice.

"I just wanted to say hello-probably for the last time," the man said. His eyes were moist. Palmer shook hands and the man said. "You remember John Sinclair and that crazy Dick Turner? The Ryder Cup matches?"

"Sure," Palmer said with a smile. "How are you?"

"No good," the man said. "But you're not to worry."

Palmer went back to putting, and the man told a woman next to him, "Cancer. I'm gonna keep smoking. It took me 70 years to get it. If the cobalt works, I've got another 70. I'll be 140 by then and that's old enough for anybody. If it doesn't work, I wanted to sake his hand one more time." CAPTION: Picture, Arnold Palmer follows flight of second shot after driving into azaleas and dogwoods on No. 2 hole. He double-bogeyed. AP