BETHESDA -- Larry Ringer got one of the biggest thrills of his golf career Wednesday when he played a practice round for the 16th U.S. Senior Open at Congressional Country Club with the legendary Arnold Palmer.
Ringer, the Country Club at Woodmore head pro who was an assistant at Congressional more than 20 years ago, shot a 69 and wound up winning more than his share of side bets from Palmer and others in a group of five players that included Chi Chi Rodriguez and Miller Barber.
"When you play with The King," Ringer said yesterday, "you hope that some of The King rubs off on you."
It did. In fact, the recently turned 50-year-old Ringer played king for a day at the Senior Open. A round that produced four birdies on the front nine, no bogeys and a dozen one-putt greens gave Ringer a 4-under-par 68 and a share of the opening-round lead with J. C. Snead.
They were one shot ahead of a group of six players that included Dave Stockton, who won the 1976 PGA Championship when it was played here, as well as Tom Weiskopf and 1992 Senior Open champion Larry Laoretti.
Seven others, including Ray Floyd, were two shots behind. Two-time Senior Open champion Jack Nicklaus was among five players at 1-under. Defending champion Simon Hobday of South Africa shot an even-par 72, as did Palmer, Hale Irwin and former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman.
"My overall feeling for the day was, wow, I mean, what can you say?" said Ringer. "[It] just absolutely tickled me, I played very well. I struggled a little bit on the back side, but the bottom line is, I made some clutch putts. I just did what I had to do. I may not have too many of these days, but I did today."
On the soft and bumpy greens that drew sharp criticism from some of the Senior Tour's biggest names during the rain-soaked practice rounds, Ringer seemed oblivious. He made birdie putts of 30 and 45 feet on the front nine, then made six more ranging from five to eight feet to save par, including four straight in one stretch, on the back nine.
"The greens are great," said Ringer, who hit only 10 in regulation and took a total of 24 putts before waving his cap to the crowd after the last one dropped from eight feet to save par on the 447-yard 18th.
"If you get a ball on line, and you hit it with the right speed, the ball is going to go in the hole. It's not like we as golf professionals have never seen that condition before."
Asked about his putter, Ringer joked, "I'm sleeping with that baby tonight."
Ringer pointed to a number of factors that contributed to yesterday's round: the knowledge that comes from having played the 6,945-yard course more than anyone in the field -- "60 to 70 times" by his estimation, the comfort provided over the past three years by a local chiropractor who has helped relieve lower back pain and the confidence from his recent performances in a string of satellite Senior events.
After two top 10 finishes in three Senior Series tournaments -- he lost by a shot at an event in Owensboro, Ky., earlier this month -- Ringer is pointing toward the Senior Tour. Ringer, who spent a little more than two nondescript seasons on the regular tour back in the mid-'70s, will try to qualify this fall.
"I didn't know I could play with these guys," said Ringer, who was born in Hagerstown and was the head coach and head pro at the Naval Academy for 15 years before going to the Prince George's club 4 1/2 years ago.
"Competition is tough out here, believe me. It has let me have the opportunity to prove that I can play with my fellow professionals."
And then there was the practice round with Palmer. When he arrived on Monday, he noticed there was an opening in Palmer's foursome and quickly signed up. When Rodriguez showed up Wednesday, Ringer figured he was the odd man out.
"I said, 'That's all right. I'll drop out. It's no problem,' " Ringer said. "Arnold looked at me. He said, 'No, you're playing with us today.' And believe me, that made my day. That made my year."
It gave Ringer a glimpse of the spotlight he might find this weekend. The money he won helped defray the cost of the local hotel room he stayed in Wednesday night, a move that en
abled him to avoid the morning rush hour on the D.C. Beltway and make his 7:20 tee time with little trouble.
Asked how much he won, Ringer smiled.
"Officially, or unofficially?" he said. "There was a very nice wager."
It left an impression on Palmer.
"He's obviously played very well," said Palmer, who didn't play too shabbily himself yesterday in posting his first even-par round at the Senior Open in three years. "He's a definite threat."
Ringer won't go that far, but he wouldn't mind his week of career thrills continuing at Congressional. For now, he will simply take the last two days, when he went from playing with The King to being one himself.
At least for a day.