After an eagle at the third hole and birdies at the sixth and 11th, Arnold Palmer was today's leader of the British Open at four under par. This, too, would pass. It did in a twinkling. Yet Palmer's 71 is a creditable start that would cause the Palmer of yore to say victory is within reach.

"If the weather stays as bad as it is today, I wouldn't mind having four 71s," Palmer said, which is precisely what he would have said in the glorious 1960s when he always hit a shot that flew over a wall and under a bridge and around a tree before rolling dead three feet from the cup to win a Masters or an Open on one side of the ocean or another. The record book says he won only four Masters, two British Opens and one U.S. Open, but memory insists he did it weekly.

The beauty of Arnold Palmer today, at 52, with another birthday coming in September, is that the guy wants nothing to do with nostalgia. What he would have said in 1962, when he won the Open here, is what he said today after shooting a one-under-par 71 on a course so tough only six of 150 men did better.

"I felt great," he said. "After that good start, I felt I should get in with a little better than 71."

Someone suggested to Palmer that he ought to feel gratified with such a nice score.

Single-minded winners carry a certain ruthlessness. Palmer hides his in a Chinese puzzle box, each door revealing less than the last, each glimpse of the contents so fleeting as to create an illusion nothing is there. At the suggestion that 71 is nice, with the patronizing implication that he is an old man in a kid's game, Palmer cracked the door ever so quickly.

"As long as I'm going to be competing out here and getting in the way of good players, I want to win--not shoot nice rounds," he said. "If I said something about 71 that didn't sound like I was happy with 71, I'm sorry."

On those last two words, Palmer put the softest of sarcastic twists. He wasn't sorry at all. "But I was a little unhappy it wasn't better than 71. I saw the lead at the time was 69, and I wanted to shoot 68, and I didn't."

Twenty years ago, Palmer won the British Open at Troon Golf Club with a record score of 12-under-par 276. He then owned golf. By his theatrical work, he made golf not only palatable on television but riveting. He slashed at the ball with a swing so violent he seemed to teeter in balance, his heavy shoulders rocking to and fro. Whatever result fate delivered, Palmer accepted with emotion visible from two fairways away.

Palmer's smile made millionaires of grouches who now stay up nights perfecting their scowls. "We all owe Arnold 75 cents of every dollar we win, because he made it happen," said pro Frank Beard. Now Beard is off the tour, his career over at 43. But on a chilly, drizzly, windy day in the 111th British Open, here was Arnold Palmer still at it, leading a big-deal tournament.

Going downwind, he reached the 556-yard fourth hole with a drive and three-wood second shot. He made a 25-foot putt for the eagle. A seven-iron to the 400-yard seventh left him a 20-footer, which he made for birdie. At the 11th, the "Railroad Hole" on which he made an eagle and two birdies in 1962, Palmer made another birdie after a wedge shot to eight feet.

Three bogeys on Troon's last six holes left Palmer with his 71.

Wasn't it a sentimental journey for him today?

"A sentimental journey? It would be very sentimental if I shot 67."

In fact, this was a day of memories. Palmer grew up the son of a small-town golf pro, Deac Palmer, in Latrobe, Pa. The father and son dreamed together. Only the very best American pros win the British Open, Palmer says, because "I don't think the others expect to." The people who have won here have set their sights and goals very high in life, and the British Open is one of those sights.

So in 1960, already a winner of two Masters, Palmer made his first trip to the British Open. "I came here to win it," he said, "because it's something in golf you have to do." The next year, Palmer won at Royal Birkdale, following up with victory the next summer at Troon when he played "some of the best golf of my life."

Palmer was made an honorary member of Troon the day before this Open started. There were tears in his eyes.

The club captain talked of Troon's history and Palmer's record and how Deac's son became the Pied Piper of golf, leading Americans over to the British Open and breathing new life into the grand old classic.

Palmer said today, "it was very touching, the whole ceremony . . . And it reminded me a great deal of my father and his visits to Scotland and how much he enjoyed it. I suppose I was thinking a little bit about how much he would have enjoyed what happened yesterday, and how we used to talk about St. Andrews and Troon when I was a youngster and playing here . . . And the whole thing became a sentimental journey. And now, being a member of both those clubs, that's something you don't expect to ever have happen in your lifetime."

Two hours before that membership ceremony, Palmer said he had one ambition this week. He wanted to win this Open.