Someone asked Arnold Palmer today, right after he put folks' hearts to a quick pitter-patter with a 68, if he might allow his mind to wander and imagine what it would be like to win the Masters golf tournament again after all these years lost in the wilderness of middle age with its eyeglasses, diets, jogging and sour looks at kids who don't know their place.

"I'm not smart enough," Palmer said, laughing, "to stop it from wandering. It's been wandering for 53 years."

Arnold Palmer needs to win a golf tournament as much as birds need flying lessons. What the great man wants, and will allow his wanderings to imagine, is a far happier circumstance.

At 53, the gray hair going to white, he's a smiling old warrior who wants what he had at 33 and didn't want at 43. He wants the thrill of the hunt one more time.

"I didn't hit it as far, as crisply, and I didn't care," Palmer said of the dog days a decade ago. "I'd played golf every day for so long. I got tired . . . I needed to relight my candle. Ten years later, I have rekindled the desire, to really want to play. Two or three years ago, I wanted to play again--more than ever."

After today's work, his best opening round at Augusta since 1961, Palmer said he has a new driver and is hitting the ball almost as far as the young Palmer did. This pleases him immensely. However many miracles he worked with a putter, rolling them home from crosstown, he most loved the big stick. He was golf's seige gun before the hair went gray.

"The new driver (he talked of scientific stuff about loft, bulge and densitizing) has given me incentive. I was having younger pros whip it by me 20, 30 yards. That told me something. Now, when I really crank it up, I hit it by them for a change."

He loves it now when the kids, all limber-back blonds who were in diapers when he first won here in '58, walk up to the long ball only to find it belongs to Mr. Palmer.

He loved it out there today, he said, because he was thinking birdies just as he did when he won the four Masters and two British Opens and one U.S. Open. He knocked in two cross-country putts and burned the 17th with a 40-footer. For a change, Palmer said, he isn't worried that this 68 is tomorrow's 75.

"Do you think," someone asked, "you have a realistic chance to win?"

"Damn right," Palmer said.

The music stops and the band goes home before some guys know the party is over. They took the bell off a cow for Muhammad Ali's last fight in a ring behind second base in a kids' ballpark on a forlorn island.

The pretty part of Palmer's pursuit of youth is its good cheer. It's easy to be of good cheer, of course, when your business empire is worth $100 million even if you never break 100 again. A cynic with a heart of stone might suggest Palmer plays only as a walking advertisement for the 10 companies and 58 commercial interests he represents. The fact is, the guy loves the heat of battle and wants to be in the trenches with the kids.

He will go gently into the night, but only after doing his damn-right best to keep the sun up.

"One of these days, it's going to come back," Palmer said. "My game is going to come back to where it should be. At L.A., I felt it. But then it kind of disappeared."

At Los Angeles in January, Palmer led the tournament with nine holes to play only to finish 10th ("I choked"). The damn-right chances of Palmer winning here are slim as a one-iron. He hasn't finished in the top 10 since 1967. The damn-right chances of winning anywhere are such that Palmer, always honest, admitted today this might be his last season trying to keep up with the limber-back blonds.

"This year will be a big question if I will continue playing much golf or stop," he said. "If it's not a good year, I probably will limit myself to a few senior tournaments and two or three regular tournaments."

For now, Palmer wants to get his career official earnings of $1,879,379 over the $2 million mark ("I'd like to do that in 1983 or before I quit"). That is part of a three-factor equation that led him to make 1983 a year of decision.

"Some tournaments I've played have not been ones I'm proud of," he said. "I haven't practiced as much, I rush to the tournament, and if I miss the cut, well, it's another tournament. I've decided I want to play well enough to win--or not play."

The senior tournaments, Palmer said, "are becoming very lucrative, very attractive. I can compete there much better than on the regular tour if my game does not improve."

Like any good athlete who seeks the heat, Palmer works against age. He has a good start because his body is lean and fit. At 5-10 1/2 and 180, he still has the heavy shoulders and strong, outsized hands of an offensive guard. He runs three miles a day. He does his morning exercises. Then he works a while in the office and practices every afternoon.

"I don't want to get old and fat and sit around not doing anything," Palmer said.

Did it ever enter his mind that his golf game is gone for good? That it won't ever come back?

"I suppose it did. My mind (here a big smile) wanders."