There was golf before Arnold Palmer. Reliable information insists there was even a British Open, although circumstances here this week suggest otherwise. At 53, Arnie now is a notch above deity.

As we all know, Palmer whaled the stuffiness out of golf while he was whaling the stuffings out of golf balls. And although he had been redefining sporting charisma in America earlier, his fame and this tournament started glittering about the glove on these Royal Birkdale links in 1961.

On the 15th hole of the final round, to be exact. In wicked weeds off the tee, near some oversized roots that had a chance to be bushes until he struck the shot he most remembers in his astonishing career, of all the seemingly hopeless situations from which he escaped to win tournaments, major and otherwise, he said that was the best.

"I tried to persuade him to take a wedge and pitch it to the middle of the fairway," said his caddie, then and now, Tip Anderson. Palmer only lays up when he's asleep, as everybody was just then beginning to realize.

So he grabbed his six-iron and took a stance aimed smack at the green 140 yards away. There was a fine chance to make 7: there was a wee chance to make par-4. He slashed in that familiar way, and when the dust and trash finally settled around him the ball was 12 feet from the cup.

"A helluva thing," said Anderson. "I couldn't believe it, and I'm a three handicap."

What surprised Palmer most was missing the birdie putt.

"Dai Rees, who's quite ill now, was coming on very strong," he said. "It ended up with him having a gimme eagle at 18 and me quite a ways from the cup in two. But I got up and down, and won by one."

He won again next year, at Troon.

"So many things about that ('61) tournament still are vivid in my mind," he was saying after being made an honorary life member here. "A little man--I can't tell you his name--did a complete design of the course (on a wood background). I've had it in my office for 22 years.

"Each of the 18 holes as we played them then, is on it, along with a diagram of where I hit every shot. Even whether I chipped or putted near the green."

The course, and how it plays, has changed so much.

There is a plaque at the exact spot of that memorable recovery, although the hole is the 16th now.

"And the wind was unbelievable," he said. "Everybody talks about it blowing 50 or 60 miles an hour. Things like that. What I remember is standing on the first tee, either the second or third round, and seeing wooden beer cases flying through the air."

He glanced outside the clubhouse door, smiled and shook his head.

"There were only two tents back then," he said, eyeing perhaps 100. "And all of them had been blown flat that day. This year it's like Palm Beach around here, everyone gettin' a sun bath."

Except Palmer.

He's been getting a legend-bath. And deservedly so.

"You'd be a good bet this week, Arnold," Tom Weiskopf said on the 13th tee after a Palmer practice-round birdie.

Palmer turned sad reality into a joke.

"What would the odds on me be?" He inquired of three reporters tagging along nearby. "About 50 to 1? 100 to 1? 200 to 1?"

Then Palmer hit his tee ball far right in to a fairway bunker, and he and a brigade-sized gallery groaned.

"They don't even put me on the board anymore," he said, pausing before firmly adding: "and I like that."

He clearly still loves the game, jogging briefly sometimes between shots, dominating the conversation. When Andy Bean joined the threesome on the 10th tee, he was greeted by Palmer saying: "the game's 5 skins--and you're down one."

Everyone enjoyed Palmer's first round today. Bold as usual, not nearly so shaky around the green: eight straight pars, a double bogey at the 16th followed by a glorious tap-in eagle a hole later. The final number was a one-over 72.

He could look ahead hopefully, though hardly as fondly as he recalled '61. Palmer was the man who led the American charge into the British Open.

"By returning to Britain year after year," Royal Birkdale Captain Cameron Weeks said during the membership presentation, "he more than anyone has made the event the prestigious championship it is today. We are indeed grateful."

Anyone with Palmer's sense of history would have done the same.

"Growing up, I was a golfer and a golf fan," he said. "I wanted to see the world. I dreamed about winning the British Open. I'd never have been happy winning a billion dollars just playing in the U.S. I didn't feel like I--or any other champion--could achieve a level of stature that was satisfying until there'd been a win somewhere other than in the States."

His first British Open, in 1960, which he nearly won, cost him money.

"The years I won maybe I broke even," he said. "Of course, I eventually more than broke even."

He was standing near a large, polished board that listed each of the previous 111 winners.

"You go down the history of the game," Palmer said, "starting most recently with Tom Watson and going back through Jack (Nicklaus) and Lee (Trevino) and (Ben) Hogan and (Bobby) Jones and (Walter) Hagen. They had to win this one."

So did Palmer.

Police keep close to him on the course now, but his only danger is being loved to death.

"A couple of years back," said Anderson, a local caddy at St. Andrews who looks a generation older than 51, "I thought he'd lost his competitive edge. Now he's hitting the ball better than he did five years ago. Now he realizes what a great putter he was."

His partners today, Ray Floyd and Crenshaw, knew to keep several deferential paces behind Palmer as they approached the 18th green. Palmer walked off, after a near-birdie, with hints of exhilaration and exhaustion.

"For me, the Open would be the U.S. Open," he maintained after some provincial prodding by a British journalist. "But throughout the world this is the most illustrious tournament there is."

Honestly, Arnold, said another Brit, getting back to reality, do you give yourself any chance to win this week?

Palmer gave that one a good-hearted flick.

"What I want," he said, "is to be the low Birkdale member."

A modest enough challenge. Then Palmer said he would never qualify for a tournament.

"My golf will determine whether I play (at St. Andrews) next year," he said. "This is my qualifying tournament."

No it isn't. If Palmer fades, they'll find a place for him. They'd better.