Beginning Dec. 14, GOLF.com is rolling out a story per day honoring the legendary Arnold Palmer, who died on Sept. 25. These pieces appeared in a special tribute issue of GOLF, which celebrated the life of one of the sport’s greats. Welcome to the 12 Days of Arnie. For more on The King, click here.
I first met Arnold Palmer in 1973. A friend had given me a copy of Go for Broke!—Palmer’s seminal instruction manual—as a present, and it quickly became my bible. I was a golf-crazed teenager, and Broke! was the road map to my new hero’s deepest secrets. It was the beginning of 40 years spent studying the Palmer method, 20 of them under direct mentorship of the King himself.
I was only 25 when I went to work for the Arnold Palmer Company. I was right out of college and wet behind the ears (and still carrying that copy of Go for Broke!). Palmer guided me through various roles in his firm, the last being the creation of an international network of learning centers bearing his name. I hung on his every word. Everything he uttered was an inspiration—a return to the game’s purest roots—and reminded me of the plainspoken honesty that first drew me to him. Simplicity was perhaps my mentor’s greatest gift. “Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated,” he’d say. “It frustrates the intellect and satisfies the soul. It’s the greatest game ever created.”
Here, I’ve shared what I learned from Palmer—and I learned a lot—from knocking down pins to managing emotions (on and off the course). Sure, he left us indelible memories. But he also left us timeless lessons that will keep on giving, helping players of all levels shoot Palmeresque scores—and, in true Arnie fashion, have a helluva lot more fun. Here are wise words from an American icon.
KEEP IT SIMPLE, KID
Palmer’s game was rooted in the bare-knuckle, workingman culture of western Pennsylvania. Quick fixes and fancy-pants antics were quick-ly shown the door. “My dad taught me how to play, and he stuck to the basic fundamentals,” he once told me. “He stressed a good grip, a steady head, and the need to just hit it hard—and not much beyond that.”
Palmer forged a legacy with basics. You? Like most weekend players, you’re probably quick to discount them, seeing them as too simple to have a positive effect on something as complex and dynamic as your swing. You need less pride. Any attempt to improve your swing must begin with the awareness that fundamentals are necessary to develop a repeatable shot pattern, especially under on-course pressure. Start with the basics at right—straight from the man himself!—and stick with them. You’ll be tempted to ditch them for advanced mechanics, but don’t take the bait. “I’ve seen many fellow competitors get twisted into knots searching for that magic bullet,” Palmer once told me. “They thought themselves right off the Tour. The goal is to create and execute good shots, not perfect swings.”
PRACTICE LIKE A PRO
It was late evening, near dusk, in April 1991. Palmer and I were tucked away on the pro end of the Bay Hill range. The setting was central Florida, but our conversation could have taken place some 400 miles north, in Augusta, Ga. Palmer, who was 61, was preparing for the Masters, mentally and physically executing the shots he’d need to reach all 72 pin positions, recounting each from memory. “Show me the approach to 18 on Sunday,” I asked. He instantly transformed, exuding the youthful and confident enthusiasm that helped him win four green jackets, and he launched a perfect 6-iron fade. “When I practice,” he said, “I imagine myself playing the hole close to what my memory recalls, with full color, the same feels, even the smells.” It then dawned on me: Successful people—golfers, executives, whomever—don’t just show up and try for the best. Their march toward victory begins weeks, months or even years earlier.
Palmer’s simulated Masters practice round shows how memory and imagination can help you practice with purpose. During your next range session, forget technique. Instead, create situations and shots in your mind, then pull the trigger. You’ll soon increase your confidence and improve your ability to execute shots during practice—and better transfer that talent to the course.
“GO FOR BROKE”
I’ve read Go For Broke! a hundred times. Its pages are dog-eared and annotated from years of study. My favorite line? “My test is to always go for broke—to try to win when common sense says it’s all over.”
That’s Palmer in a nutshell: Win at all costs. It’s an awesome lesson, especially in defeat. “I never looked at my losses as others did,” Palmer said. “I was disappointed but always felt like I learned something that would help me win the next time out.”
That’s not a license to ignore hazards or hit driver off the deck from every fairway. Although Palmer took chances, he forged a tactical plan that balanced risk against reward. Here are four big takeaways:
1. Roll it with authority. It’s better to knock putts past the hole than to come up short. This way, you give yourself a chance to make it.
2. Don’t compound mistakes. If you get into trouble, take your licks and get out.
3. Know your limits. Only play shots you’re confident you can pull off.
4. Take risks, but don’t gamble. A shot that leaves you in trouble if you don’t execute it correctly is a risk. A shot you’ve never practiced? That’s a gamble.
“To me, “going for broke” is just that,” he said. “It’s laying it all on the line for a chance at victory. That was fun for me—exhilarating, really—and very gratifying as well.”
BE CONFIDENT YET HUMBLE
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “A man wrapped up in himself makes for a very small bundle.” It would have been easy for Palmer to become cocky. Who wouldn’t, after winning seven majors from 1958 to 1964? But he was as humble as he was secure.
“Early in my career,” he said to me, “my father, Deacon, would tell me to remember where I came from, to keep my feet on the ground, to focus on my work and not get too caught up with all of the accomplishments.
“I can remember coming back from winning the British Open in 1961, where I was dining with dukes and princes over the course of an entire week. I came home to Latrobe, excited about my victory. My dad greeted me with open arms and, with his second breath, said, “Now, why don’t you put down that Claret Jug. I need your help mowing the back nine.””
Knowing Palmer as I did, this exchange was hugely important to him. It reminded him that if he was going to continue to succeed, he’d need to balance his towering confidence with a humble appreciation—not just for his talent, but for all the people involved in making it possible. What a poweful lesson.
For most players, humility comes easy; we all hit shots we’d like to forget. Building confidence is the hard part. Golfers are fickle creatures. We consider ourselves as good—or, all too often, as bad—as our last swing. We tend to be hard on ourselves. We start rounds brimming with optimism but after a loose hole or two we dwell on what could have been. Sure, that’s understandable—we’re only human—but it’s not the Palmer way.
“The secret, Brad,” he told me, “is to not spend time worrying or being concerned about the shots you miss. My plan was simple: Get my head wrapped around doing things right, then put them to task again as soon as I could, with nothing but great expectations.”
Taking a baby-steps approach will help. “I worked hard at getting a little better every day,” Palmer said. “Every success increased my confidence and awareness of what I needed to do to win. With every win, I began to trust and believe in my ability to win again. This allowed me to think more about expanding my goals and what I wanted most of all—to keep on improving and win more tournaments.”
Top 100 Teacher Brad Brewer left the Arnold Palmer Company in 2004 to start his own academy at Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando. He’s the author of Mentored by the King, available on amazon.com.