Thursday, January 26, 2012
When GOLF MAGAZINE was born in April 1959, Arnold Palmer had won 11 times in three years and was the reigning Masters champion. Alas, it wasn't enough: The editors selected Sam Snead for the first cover. There was a Palmer profile inside, but it was hardly deferential; writer Charles Price described the King's "almost girlish 30-inch waist." Palmer laughs when he is told of the description while flipping through the 21 covers with his likeness during a recent talk at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando.

He's thicker around the waist now, a 36, but Bay Hill's 74-year-old principal owner is still a forceful presence. He gets up at 5:30 a.m. and is in the office by eight. Charlie Mechem, the former LPGA boss who works for Palmer these days, picks up the Starbucks -- tall half regular, half decaf for the four-time Masters winner. Palmer will make a record 50th straight Masters start April 8 and says it will be his last. He doesn't expect a four-hankie outing like his final U.S. Open start at Oakmont 10 years ago, when he was overwhelmed by the support in his home state of Pennsylvania and dissolved in tears, but we'll see. For a man of such swashbuckling swagger, Palmer has always been sentimental.

A widower since his wife, Winnie, died of cancer in 1999, he got engaged last year to Kit Gawthrop. And Gawthrop, who lives in Tiburon, California, but visits Palmer at Bay Hill and on the road, is not the only new love of his life. There's also Mulligan, a 3-year-old yellow Labrador retriever that he and Kit adopted. Palmer lavishes the dog with affection and lets him bump around the office at Bay Hill.

GOLF MAGAZINE talked with the King about his future and past and the state of the game he made a major sport.

In the first GOLF MAGAZINE 45 years ago, Charles Price declared that you had "an almost girlish 30-inch waist." That has to be the only time someone has described anything about Arnold Palmer as girlish.

You've been on our cover 21 times. Do you have a favorite?

like these cigarettes. [Palmer was smoking on the July 1967 cover.]

They gave you quite a battle.

You'll play in your 50th and final Masters this spring and you've been attending the Champions' Dinner since 1959. Do you remember what you served that year?

Masters champions have been known to throw a good party. Any Champions' Dinner moments that still make you laugh?

Snead would jump up and kick the top of the door frame every year.

Byron Nelson has retired as a ceremonial first-ball hitter at The Masters. Have you discussed taking over that role with Augusta Chairman Hootie Johnson?

You have a new fiancee and even a new dog. Are you getting ready to settle down and do some serious nesting?

Have you and Kit set a date?

So you're just like Tiger Woods.

Do you and Kit play golf together?

What about Mulligan? Does he join you on the golf course?

You played nine times on the Champions Tour last year and twice on the regular Tour, including The Masters.

Your two daughters have given you five granddaughters and two grandsons, both of whom are golfers. How are they coming along with the game?

Can he outdrive you?

Your victory in the 1961 British Open at Royal Birkdale breathed life into the tournament in the U.S., where players and fans had lost interest in it. Why did you decide to play over there?

Who would turn Arnold Palmer away?

Another great moment in Franco-American relations.

What's your most enduring memory of "The Charge," when you drove the first green at Cherry Hills and came from seven strokes off the pace to beat Jack Nicklaus at the 1960 U.S. Open?

What was most significant was the Bob Drum story. [Before the final round, newspaperman Drum had told Palmer he was too far back to win.] When I drove the first green I was thinking about winning the golf tournament. I birdied the first five holes and was walking up the 8th fairway to the green on the par 3 and here come the entire press corps with Drum leading them. I asked him what he was doing out there watching someone who didn't have a chance, which gave me a little pleasure. Then I promptly bogeyed that hole -- talk about a dose of humility. But that was the last bogey I made.

Do you think you would have made the charge if Drum hadn't said anything to you?

What's your best round this year?

Probably 72 from the Shootout tees [between the white tees and the championship tees] at Bay Hill -- nothing that I want to go around town bragging about.

Are today's players accommodating enough with the press and the fans?

In the old days, players drove from tournament to tournament. There's a story that you had a car that fell apart the moment you quit driving it.

Do you consider yourself lucky?

Were you hurt by the backlash over your endorsement of the non-conforming Callaway ERC driver?

Did you pattern yourself after anybody? Your father was obviously a great influence, but he didn't seem the swashbuckling type.

Do you have any regrets?

Who are the most impressive people you've met?

Have you ever played with President George W. Bush?

I've met him in a number of places, like Kennebunkport [Maine]. There was a game of horseshoes going on.

Who was winning?

What are the big changes you've noticed in the game in 45 years?

Do any memorable comments that were made in the heat of battle jump to mind?

When [Billy] Casper beat me in the playoff after I had a seven-shot lead starting the back nine [in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club]. Billy and I never conversed a lot on the golf course, but walking up the 10th fairway he said something about how if he didn't play the back nine better Nicklaus was going to beat him out for second. I said something like, "Oh, well, if I can help you I will." And of course I helped him beat me. [Casper won their 18-hole playoff the next day by four shots.] It was not what I had in mind. It was a friendly comment but it came back to... chastise me.

You've accomplished so much -- what more could there be to do?

You'd be a maverick?

How many golf courses do you have going right now?

It must be hard to keep tabs on that many.

Are you alarmed at how some courses are being made obsolete by how far the ball is traveling?

Tour pros now routinely make more than $1 million for four days' work. Do you look at those figures and shake your head?

Our readers feel they've been with you for the past 45 years.

Got a message for them?

You seem as strong and vital as ever. Are you feeling any effects of aging?

We keep hearing all about Hugh Hefner and his Viagra, but most people would assume, given your reputation as a very vigorous guy, that that wouldn't be necessary for Arnold Palmer. True?

You don't need Viagra?

Still charging.
Still trying.

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