All Hail the King: Arnie at 80
Everyone remembers the first time they met Arnold Palmer even Jack Nicklaus. To celebrate his 80th birthday, we asked those whose lives have been enriched by Palmer friends, employees and nodding acquaintances to share their stories of golf's most charismatic star.
Arnold Palmer, who turns 80 on September 10, has probably played more public rounds of golf than anyone in history. Among his achievements: 92 worldwide victories, six Ryder Cups, four Masters titles, two British Open wins and a 1960 U.S. Open victory that has been called the greatest ever. Having hooked a nation on his freewheeling style of play, Palmer then answered three decades' worth of curtain calls on the Champions Tour, at Skins Games and, more recently, as the ceremonial first-ball striker at the Masters.
Palmer's brilliant game was never hidden. Every belted drive, improbable recovery shot and pressure putt not to mention the devastating collapses that cost him several majors received the warranted ooohs and aaahs, the cheers and groans. It says something about Palmer, therefore, that a recent round of interviews with golf notables yielded few memories of miracle shots or historic matches. That's because Palmer's legacy is his personality, an amalgam of competitiveness, magnetism and warmth. And if you believe these voices, it was ever so.
The first time I saw Arnold was in 1954. I was 14 years old and playing in the Ohio Amateur. I came off the golf course in pouring rain, and there was one guy on the practice range hitting 9-irons about 10 feet high, taking big divots. Strong as an ox, just killing the ball. I watched him for a half-hour in the rain because I was interested in his swing and how he was moving the ball, these low draws. Somebody said, "Oh, that's our defending champion, Arnold Palmer." He was still hitting when I left.
Dow Finsterwald 1958 PGA Champion and longtime friend
His hands were so large that he looked like he was holding a toothpick. His swing? Well, he hit at it hard and fast. If you filmed Arnold and looked at it frame by frame, he was as solid as any player through the hitting area. His father had taught him well.
Dean Reinmuth Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher
The first time I saw him was at Tam O'Shanter [in Chicago] when I was a young kid watching the Western Open. Some guy was moving in the crowd, and I remember Arnold's head popping up and his eyes locking on the guy like a laser. Oh, man, everybody just froze.
Bert Harbin Longtime Palmer friend
We lived on Aumond Road in old Augusta, and for 19 years we rented our house to Arnie for Masters week. He liked to repair clubs, so I bolted a vise to a big old table and put it in the garage. If Arnie teed off in the afternoon, there'd be 20 of us out in the garage watching him fiddle with his clubs.
Jason Gore Winner, in 2005, of the 84 Lumber Classic
When I was 11, my mom and I met Mr. Palmer at Latrobe Country Club. He took a picture with us, signed a scorecard, and then he said, "Son, I'm going to go hit balls. Would you like to watch?" I watched for 45 minutes. And from that point on I knew I wanted to be a professional golfer.
Bev Norwood Writer and a close Palmer friend for 31 years
Arnold's final British Open at Troon not his final Open, but his final one at Troon was in 1989. On the 16th hole of a practice round, a photographer asked if he might take a picture of Arnold beside the famous plaque of him hitting the shot that won the Open. Arnold said, "Sure." So they go look for a few minutes and cannot find the plaque. Finally, Arnold turns to his longtime caddie, Tip Anderson. He says, "Tip, where is that damn plaque?" And Tip says, "Mr. Palmer, it's 120 miles south of here at Royal Birkdale."
Jimmy Roberts NBC Sports interviewer and essayist
When he said goodbye at Oakmont, we all knew the significance of it. I was working for ESPN at the time, and Arnie lost it. Just totally, totally lost it. I've interviewed hundreds of athletes who cried, but this was Arnold Palmer at Oakmont. I remember feeling kind of embarrassed and very unsure of myself. How do you react? Do you try to console Arnold Palmer?
Leonard Kamsler Golf photographer
It's hard to take a bad picture of Cypress Point, and it's hard to take a bad picture of Arnold Palmer.
Bob Goalby 1968 Masters champion
I wrote Arnold a letter the other day. Never wrote him one in my life. I just told him that I was honored to have played in the same era as he did. I said, "All of us would have liked to have been like you." That may not have been adequate, but I wanted him to know how we feel.
Peter Jacobsen Seven-time PGA Tour winner
I met him while playing a practice round at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. I don't recall the year. I cut across a hole and looked back, and I saw that it was Arnold Palmer. I was so embarrassed. He walked up on the next tee, stuck his hand out and said, "Hey, do you mind if we join you?" When it was clear that I had cut in front of him! My heart was pounding out of my chest, but he treated me as an equal. That's the kind of guy he is, and that's the kind of image he projects one of inclusion, not exclusion.
Doc Giffin Palmer's business manager and right-hand man
Probably the most memorable moment for me was the time President Eisenhower surprised him on his birthday in 1966. Winnie set it up, and I was one of the few in on it. She sent Arnie's plane to Gettysburg on a Saturday morning to pick up the former President. Eisenhower just comes up the walk and knocks on the door. Winnie and Arnie answer the door, and there's Ike standing there with a little bag in his hands. And Ike says, "Do you happen to have a little room for an old man to spend the night?"
David B. Fay USGA executive director
The first time I saw him was at the 1967 U.S. Open, a practice round. He comes walking up the hill on the fifth hole, wearing a light blue shirt, and I couldn't believe the size of his forearms. It was a lasting image, like the first time you walk into a big league ballpark and you can't believe how green it is.
Renton Laidlaw Longtime golf announcer
I remember when Palmer won the 1975 Spanish Open at La Manga. I went to interview him in his bungalow. He was on the phone to his wife, and he was like a child: "I won again!" I was just so impressed. He was that kind of competitor. You'd have thought he'd won the Open.
Louise Suggs LPGA founder and Hall of Famer
I knew Arnold and Winnie before they were married, back when they used to go into a clubhouse and order food at a table for two. Arnold always called me "Patty." Charlie Mechem [the former LPGA commissioner] was showing him around one day, and Arnold came over to me and said, "Patty, how are you?" And I said, "Arnold, if you keep callin' me Patty, I'm going to start callin' you Jack."
I saw him sign autographs in hundred-degree heat after he'd shot 74 or 75. He'd stand there for an hour by the ropes. I wouldn't stand there for 10 minutes; I'd be churning inside. But he'd just stand there. I think he loved the adulation.
Vinny Giles Winner of both the U.S. and British Amateurs
I played with him twice in the Masters, as an amateur. Back then they let the galleries get a lot closer to the action, and there would be occasions where you had to wait. I remember my third shot to No. 8 they had to move 10,000 people out of the way so I could hit an 80-yard pitch. [Laughs.] They certainly weren't there to watch me.
Arnold lost a Monday playoff in Wilmington in 1958, so we didn't get to Augusta until Monday night. On Tuesday I put together a game with Ben Hogan and Jack Burke. It wasn't one of Arnold's better days, and afterward, Hogan said something like, "How did this guy get in the tournament with that swing?" Gosh darn, Arnold had won seven tournaments in two years, so I think Hogan must have just been pulling Arnold's chain a little bit. But it worked out well for Arnold that week. [Palmer won the first of his four Masters titles. Hogan finished seven strokes back in a tie for 14th.]
Gary Player Longtime Palmer rival
Arnold fell out of bed with charisma. He didn't need to speak. He just had it.