Golf is the one sport compassionate enough to let a man with one foot almost in the grave and yet wicked enough to bury his ego when he tries to tamper with its harsh realities. Which is as polite a way as any to take you to the 14th tee at Congressional with Arnold Palmer yesterday and listen as still another well-intended shot grabs sand.

"If that was the green," Arnie snapped, scarcely able to cap the Mount St. Helens that had been building within him, "I couldn't hit it . . . ."

His voice trailed off. He had been saving pars from everywhere inside the Beltway for 13 holes, had in fact willed a score that could have approached infinity to just two over par. Fans were beginning to flock toward his group.

"The fresh news about Palmer?" a veteran PGA Tour watcher said. "The fresh news is that Arnie's playing well. And that really is news."

It surely is. If all his tour earnings from the last seven seasons were added together, Palmer still would have fallen several thousand short of cracking the top 15 money winners last year . Tom Watson's caddie probably has made more money than Arnie on the course each of the last three years.

Palmer has been flailed with this sort of embarrassment all too often, with facts such as players either as yet unborn or in diapers when he hit the tour in 1955 now ready to reap the rewards he made possible.

Arnie in the Kemper? Better let him play Needwood if he wants to make the cut. From the whites. He's guaranteed to be low legend, because Jack Nicklaus is elsewhere.

"I hope I can make my bed when I'm his age, let alone hit shots like that," one fan sang.

That may have been the cruelest cut of all -- and it surely was meant otherwise. For Palmer, less than four months before his 51st birthday, looks exceptional. About 20 pounds lighter after steady jogging, he is his fittest in years. And still powerful.

But no longer compelling. Once galleries were so large it almost was impossible for most fans to know Palmer's score other than by word of mouth. The first few rows would watch his shots, then pass the news to the less fortunate.

The most seasoned Palmerphiles could tell his fate with their ears as well as their eyes. There is nothing in all of sport quite like the swell of affection that soars out of Amen Corner at Augusta when Arnie has made birdie.

A J. C. Snead hole-in-one would not inspire as much noise as a long Palmer putt. And for good reason. No athlete meant more to his sport than Palmer. If he has become a millionaire many times over because of golf, he probably deserves geometrically more.

The last few years, however, as he has physically seemed more legendary-like but played ever more mortally. Arnie's Army has dwindled. Once an all-volunteer outfit, it needs draftees to be more than division size.

It now is possible to watch every one of Arnie's shots without craning the neck too much. Even as he made the turn just two over yesterday. Even with memories of that 64 during the final round at Houston three weeks ago still fresh.

Some veterans who marched through the '50s, '60s and '70s with Arnie -- and who will answer the call whenever he grabs a club in public -- were on hand. And were treated to vintage Palmer on the fourth hole.

There was Palmer, bold as always, aiming his second a shot on the 420-yard par-4 toward a space less than three feet off the ground and under a spread of wide pines.

He pulled it off, the ball boring low and true toward the flag.Another long-iron miracle from nearly 200 yards out. Almost. The ball had been struck to hard, skipping 30 feet beyond the green and under a tree.

We have seen Arnie there before -- and pulling off the up-and-down he invented again yesterday. His chip would have stopped rolling about Rockville if it had not hit the stick. As it did so often in the past -- and does not in our minds -- the ball did bruise the stick.

Arnie made the 3 1/2-foot par putt.

In his fourth decade of high-pressure golf, however, Palmer is inches wide of what he needs. Instead of finding a way to shoot four under at Congressional, Palmer found a way to shoot four over.

He missed five of seven fairways on the front nine and was two over. He hit five of seven fairways on the back nine and was two over. Anytime Palmer needed just 30 putts in an entire round, he had a chance at victory. That total yesterday meant he has a chance to make the cut.

As he watched that tee shot land in a fairway trap on the 14th hole, Palmer may have realized he had been too consistently erratic for anything wonderful to come out of this round, that the putter he had needed a Watson-like 16 times through 11 holes would inevitably regain its familiar flutter.

From a flier lie in the rough at 13, Palmer had hit a greenside trap and made bogey. From that fairway trap, he made bogey at 14. From the fringe, he made bogey at 16. He had putts inside five feet twice in that stretch -- and took an ugly stab that assured a miss each time.

Palmer had been emeritus for several years. And his faithful have gone through various stages of adjustment, from irritation that Arnie would expose his flaws against players and courses capable of embarrassing him to resignation. If Arnie wants to keep going, we'll tag along for a while.

"Distractions" he keeps giving as the major reason for his decline. He hits his shots, looks up and instead of the ball he sees an airplane. Or a business appointment.

"My career is in the twilight years, if you want to be kind about it," he said. "But I hope to win some tournament before I give it up totally. But (the last few years) I'm wondering about what's going on in Latrobe, Pa., or Bay Hill, Fla., or Charlotte, N.C." He named several other business interests and added:

"I also sometimes think about who I forgot to phone or if I can make that speech I'm supposed to give in Detroit. Or where the airplane is and if it should be somewhere else.

"Not all the time of course. But bunched over three or four rounds. It's hard to maintain good, solid concentration for 72 holes."

After 25 years.