CAPE ELIZABETH — Thirty years ago Arnold Palmer could still strike the ball with the best players on the Senior PGA Tour. Putting was the problem. Palmer wasn’t about to change his famous knock-kneed style after winning 62 PGA events, seven majors and nine more titles on the Senior Tour.

Instead, he changed putters. At least that’s what he was doing at Purpoodock Club in 1986 before the third round of the Unionmutual Seniors Golf Classic, according to club member Jonathan Brogan.

“The pro then, Bryce Roberts, obviously had a bunch of putters sitting around and Arnold would grab a handful of putters and he would go out to the practice green with five different putters,” said Brogan, 57. “He’d take a few putts with these five different putters and then decide which one would get auditioned for the day. So here he is leading the tournament and he’s got all these different putters he’s trying out.”

Palmer, who died Sunday at the age of 87, must have found the right putter (or putters) that weekend.

Palmer earned what would be his next-to-last tournament victory and $38,000 at Purpoodock Club on Sept. 28, 1986, besting an invitational field of top senior professionals by three shots with rounds of 65-67-68 and gaining new fans to Arnie’s Army.

“I was always a Jack Nicklaus fan because I was too young when Arnold was at his peak,” Brogan said. “And then when I saw him play out here and saw how he reacted and how he interacted with the crowds, you could see it in two seconds. He was amazing. He just had a way of looking at people that made everyone think he was looking right at them. People talk about charisma or however you describe it but he had it. The crowd loved him and he loved them.”

Palmer, who had gone nearly two years without a victory, acknowledged the estimated crowd of over 10,000 that packed the tight layout.

“The fans in this area have been fantastic,” Palmer told television station WCSH that day. “They showed up in force and I think that is great.”

Current Purpoodock pro Tony Decker was in the throng, a teenager who had been newly introduced to golf.

“He just seemed to have a presence about him and really was engaging with the gallery and it seemed like people were always rooting for him,” Decker said. “In a sport where you never root against anybody, people were definitely pulling for him.”

Palmer didn’t disappoint. He played aggressively, intent on expanding his first-round lead.

Palmer's three straight eagles on the 16th hole at Purpoodock are commemorated.

Palmer’s three straight eagles on the 16th hole at Purpoodock are commemorated. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Palmer eagled the par-5 16th hole all three days. That feat is now commemorated by a bronze plaque beside the 16th tee, which was dedicated in 2005 with approval from Palmer. The current plaque is actually the second one that was completed.

Brogan said the first attempt had a profile image of Palmer that did not do him justice and the manufacturer agreed to make a second one

“When he played at Purpoodock he was still dashing even though he was getting up there in years,” said Tom Chard, the former longtime Portland Press Herald golf writer who covered the event. “He had the swagger still and obviously he could still play a lick.”

Palmer’s most memorable shot in the final round was his second on the newly reconfigured par-5 second hole.

“It wasn’t an ideal position but it was far enough back for him to go over the trees,” Chard said. “He put it on the green and he was on in two, which is kind of unheard of.”

“The safe shot is to wedge it up and go for birdie. He’s looking at it, looking at it, and he takes his 4-wood out and drives it right over this big oak tree and onto the green,” Brogan said. “The crowd went crazy and he was just fired up.”

Palmer missed his eagle putt by an inch. After the round he explained his decision.

Arnie's Army gained a new group of fans when Arnold Palmer won the Unionmutual Seniors Golf Classic in September 1986 at Purpoodock Club in Cape Elizabeth. Palmer thrilled the crowd with his daring playing and charming style.

Arnie’s Army gained a new group of fans when Arnold Palmer won the Unionmutual Seniors Golf Classic in September 1986 at Purpoodock Club in Cape Elizabeth. Palmer thrilled the crowd with his daring playing and charming style. File photo/Jack Milton File photo/Jack Milton

“If I had dumped the ball in the middle of the trees I would have been in trouble. I knew I could hit the shot that was required,” Palmer said. “Like I said before, the idea is to get as big a lead as possible. That’s the best way to do it.”

The Unionmutual tournament, which was not affiliated with the Senior PGA Tour, was held for three years, 1984-86. It was the brainchild of then club president Ralph “Bud” Deangelis and Colin Hampton, an avid golfer and the president of Union Mutual. The tournament invited top senior pros and rewarded the top salespeople at Union Mutual (now Unum) with the opportunity to play in a pro-am.

Palmer played all three years.

“The first year it was a match play tournament and Palmer lost in the first round so he was out after a day. He was obviously the draw,” Chard said. “The next year they went to three rounds of stroke play to insure Arnold stayed all three days.”

After the pros’ first visit in 1984, tournament organizers encouraged the course to change the aforementioned second hole from a par 4 to a par 5.

“The pros wanted a par 5 on the front nine, which the members did, too,” Brogan said. “In the process they also turned a weak third hole into a good third hole. It was really a win-win for the course.

Standing next to the 16th tee Monday, Decker noted that 30 years ago to the day was the opening round of Palmer’s Purpoodock win.

“Not only did he shape the game but, in a certain way, just his presence here shaped our golf course,” Decker said.