A Q&A with Tom Callahan on Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods and his new Arnie biography

April 3, 2017

Tom Callahan is one of the most versatile curmudgeons ever to hunch over a keyboard. In almost a half-century in the business, Callahan has been a newspaper columnist (The Washington Post), a long-form magazine writer (Time, Golf Digest) and the author of six books. Typical of Callahan’s reporting instincts—and skepticism of blowhards—this former Marine spent weeks in the bush in Vietnam searching for the ghost of Tiger Phong, the soldier after whom Earl Woods nicknamed his son. (Phong had died years earlier, but Callahan found the family and his place of burial.) Two subsequent books—In Search of Tiger and His Father’s Son: Earl and Tiger Woods—are indispensable reading in understanding golf’s greatest enigma.

Now Callahan, 71, has taken on another icon with the just-released Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer. It’s less an exhaustive biography than a series of colorful yarns from a writer who was close to Palmer dating to the early 1970s. I caught up with Callahan on the eve of the Masters; Arnie and Tiger loomed large in our chat, but it was also a chance for Callahan to reminisce about, among other things, Dan Jenkins, Red Smith, Muhammad Ali and stories that are too good to fact-check.

Alan Shipnuck: When are you getting to Augusta?

Tom Callahan: I’m not going.

AS: You’re kidding.

TC: I’m going to try to sell my book instead. I’m going to New York.

AS: Well, Augusta would seem like a good place to sell your book—you’ve got the whole world’s sports media there.

TC: Yeah, I don’t know. I gave up going to the Masters years ago. One year I was sitting there and realized it was my 26th in a row, and I thought to myself, That’s six months of my life in Augusta, Ga. You know?

AS: Oh yes, I can relate to that.

TC: I kept going to the British because it was the only time I saw [Dan] Jenkins. He won’t drive on the left side of the road, so I was like his chauffeur. He called me Simon because he had another chauffeur once named Simon. When the travel finally got too much for Dan, he and I both quit. By the way, I’m just kidding about selling the book. My philosophy on books is, If it’s good enough, it’ll sell, and if it doesn’t sell, it wasn’t good enough.

AS: Well, there’s art and there’s commerce. To me it takes both. You’ve written a helluva book, but it’s harder and harder to get people to focus on anything these days. You’ve got to sell it hard, I think.

TC: I got a very good advance. So my attitude is I’ve already been paid for this book. I’m at the stage of life, at 71, where I only do what I feel like doing.

AS: You were already my hero, but even more so now.

TC: No one believes me when I say this, but I root for every book to sell, with two exceptions: Mein Kampf and anything by Ann Coulter. I even root for John Feinstein’s books to sell.

 Buy Arnie: The Life of Arnold Palmer Now

AS: Even Feinstein? That’s generous. So you mentioned Jenkins—I was interested that you dedicated Arnie to him. What is your favorite Dan Jenkins story from your many years sitting next to him?

TC: Oh, God. Almost everything he says is funny. He’s an authentically funny guy. One time a young writer walked up to him in my presence and said, “I’ve always wanted to be like you.” And he said, “Hung over?” That’s the way he thinks. But there’s a sweetness to him that he keeps pretty hidden. It’s been a great break for me to be around great writers. I was Red Smith’s best friend, through no fault of my own. I worked for Jack Murphy when I was a basketball writer in San Diego, and Jack and Red traveled together the way old sportswriters used to, and I was kind of brought in as a junior partner. I started writing a column in Cincinnati and I got to know Jack better as a fellow columnist. Anything in New York or nearby, we’d stay at Red’s place, which was a tremendous break for me. So I was around Red in those days when old sportswriters only talked about one thing: newspapers.

The sportswriters who went to dinner, they never talked about the game they just covered or the sport or who’s leading or all that stuff that’s on TV now. Never. They only cared about newspapers, and I couldn’t get enough of that, sitting there with Red and all the other old guys. That was an era where every town had a great sportswriter, and you couldn’t think of the town or the sportswriter without the other. They were bigger than most of the athletes they wrote about, at least in that one city. And they were such gentlemen. They never failed to introduce the young sportswriter to the manager at spring training, or extend those kinds of courtesies. I loved those guys, and I miss them.

I miss newspapers, which are basically gone, and I miss all those great old guys. One of the casualties of gravitating toward older guys like I did, once they’re gone it takes all the fun out of the Super Bowls and the Kentucky Derbys. I don’t miss being on the trail because to me the trail was all those guys. I admire Jenkins for still going to the majors. He still wants to go. He was basically Palmer’s age, and one of the reasons I dedicated the book to him is I kind of associate him with Palmer. They were both [born in] 1929, and he was around Palmer most of his life. I’m sure there’s nothing in that book that’s news to him.

AS: I think it’s helpful that you were a generalist and not just a golf guy because it allowed you to bring a different perspective to Palmer.

TC: I went to 37 Wimbledons. I went to Rose Bowls and Orange Bowls and Sugar Bowls and baseball playoffs. I traveled with the Redskins while I was in Washington. I traveled with the Bengals when I was in Cincinnati. I was at the finish line for Secretariat at Belmont, and I barely know which end a horse eats from. I covered Evel Knievel at the canyon. I picked Evel.

AS: Always take the canyon, Tom. Everybody knows that.

TC: I know. I should have. So golf was just one of the things I did. But I liked doing it because it was during the day and there were trees. To me, golf was a charming thing to cover, and easy. It happened during the day, so deadlines were easy. Life was easy. So I always kind of liked golf. In a way, I started working on this book 45 years ago, you know. I had so much grist on Palmer just inside myself. I didn’t even bother to look at his series of autobiographies. I promised myself I’d look at them last. I never did. But I was there for most of his life, right up to the end.

Last June [three months before Palmer died] good old Doc Giffin said Arnold wanted to see me, which is pretty nice because Arnold was ashamed of how he looked. That’s why he didn’t go to the U.S. Open 42 miles away [at Oakmont]. He didn’t let very many people visit him either, but he let me come and sit with him, and he was great. His mind was great. His memory was great; it’s just that he couldn’t move. He couldn’t walk, and his hearing was pretty bad. But if you were sitting with him at the desk he was fine, and he was great to me. He was always great.

AS: My point about your generalist background is that, for those of us only in golf, Palmer was so larger than life that he blotted out the sun. It’s hard to have any perspective. But for you, where did he fit into the larger sports landscape with Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath and the other superstars of that era you covered?

TC: He was way ahead of Joe Namath but behind Ali. To be honest with you, the most compelling figure in my time around sports was Ali. He was a touchstone for racism, the Vietnam War, just everything. Like Palmer, he got to know you because he liked writers. He always said the same thing when I saw him: “How’s Angie? I like her better than you.” And he never met her. I was on the phone with him in like 1969. He talked so much sometimes it was hard to get rid of him, and I had a deadline. So I said, “Champ, I’ve got to go.” Finally I handed the phone to my wife, and I went into the office and wrote a column. It took me an hour and a half. I came out and they were still talking.

AS: I love it.

TC: He never said, “Hi, Tom how’s it going?” He always greeted me the same way: “How’s Angie? I like her better than you.” He had a greeting like that for everybody. Arnold knew him, and he agreed with me that Ali was the most compelling figure of that era by far.

AS: Did you enjoy that same rapport on the golf beat?

TC: I played golf with Jack. I played golf with Arnie. I played golf with Sam Snead. I’m a terrible golfer, like a long hitting bogey player. But I shot 81 playing with Sam Snead and lost $300.

AS: Did you expense it?

TC: I’m glad you said that because I did expense it.

AS: That reminds of me of one of my favorite stories ever, which I’ve never actually heard from you but I’ve told so many time it’s almost like it happened to me: Didn’t you expense goat reparations when you were researching the Tiger Phong story?

TC: The phrasing wasn’t that good. I wish I’d have thought of that.

AS: Tell me the story.

TC: It was in Vietnam. I had a driver and we hit a goat, and the guy who owned the goat was very upset. Rightfully so. So I gave him some money. Seemed like a legitimate expense to me. I doubt I put goat reparations down or even specified what had happened. But if you went over that expense account with a jeweler’s loop, you’ll find a goat.

AS: That is exactly why you should never fact-check a really good tale.

TC: I know. I wrote something that ended up in a movie, and I still don’t know whether it’s true.

AS: Go on.

TC: I went to do a cover story on Dennis Conner [the America’s Cup skipper] for Time. He was a real dick, but anyway, while I was sailing with him in Freemantle [Australia] I heard that a bunch of journalists—I think they were Swedish, but I don’t even remember anymore—decided they had to see a kangaroo before they left the country. They drove out into the country and, as luck would have it, they accidentally hit one with their car.

So they’re standing around feeling bad about it, but they decide they might as well take a picture with it, since it might be the only kangaroo they see. One of the guys takes off his jacket and he puts it on the kangaroo, and they take all these pictures around the dead kangaroo. But it wasn’t dead; it was just knocked out. Suddenly it stands up and hops into the woods, wearing the guy’s jacket… with the keys to the rental car in the pocket. This was too good not to use, so I put it in the story and I told the fact-checker at Time, “I do not want this checked. If it’s wrong it’s my fault and I’ll take the heat, but I do not want this story checked.” Years later there was a movie with that exact scene in it.

AS: That is so great. O.K., as much fun as we’re having here, I’m gonna try to steer this conversation back to Arnie. I mean, how do you approach writing a book about Arnold Palmer? To me it’s like taking on a biography of George Washington: They’ve been part of the public imagination for so long, where do you even start?

TC: I took it on at my own risk. It’s not one of those 600-page biographies where you’re going to talk to everyone he’s ever known. I just trusted all the years I spent with him. I wrote three large pieces on him for Golf Digest, when he turned 60, 70 and 80. I was on the run with him in a million places. I played golf with him. So I just relied on my own stuff. By the way, I didn’t feel obligated to make Arnold perfect. To me, what he was was good enough. I mean, he obviously adored Winnie, but he adored all women. The story that Bob Rosburg told me I think is a good illustration. [Callahan writes in the book: PGA champion Bob Rosburg, Palmer’s occasional roommate in the hungry days on tour, spoke of fielding a phone call once from an especially agitated husband. Rossie said he tried to placate the man but, never wanting to come between Arnie and buckshot, signed off by saying, “My bed is the one by the window.”]

AS: That’s a classic.

TC: It wasn’t the same as with Tiger. Tiger, there was something unseemly. Of course the times were different, and probably Palmer wouldn’t get away with being such a womanizer today. But it wasn’t as unseemly, let’s put it that way. Arnold thought he was a complete success as a husband and father, but I’m sure he hurt Winnie, I’m sure he hurt his daughters some of the time, but he saved it by the way he lived and the way he liked to live. And of course I didn’t hold Tiger’s women against him as much as the way he treated all people.

There’s that story at the end of the book, two soldiers are in Vietnam and they write a letter to Arnie and he sends them a sand wedge and some balls over there, along with a handwritten note. Years later, one of them walks up to him at the Western Open and says, “I’m one of the guys you sent a sand wedge to in Vietnam.” And Arnie says, “Are you Wally or Jeff?” I mean, try that with Tiger. Palmer had the best Tiger line. He said to me, “I think when Tiger lost his father, he lost himself. My wish for him is not to come back as a player but to come back as a man.” I thought, That’s the best line I’ve ever heard on Tiger.

AS: Arnold wasn’t an intellectual, but he had a high emotional IQ as they call it, right? He just “got” people.

TC: He had a good vocabulary too. I was at Arnold’s press conference that Sunday when he lost to Johnny Miller at Oakmont [at the 1973 U.S. Open], and almost the first thing he said was—because he had seen the score going up on the board in the middle of his round—“You’d think as long as I’ve played golf, I wouldn’t have blanched.” That’s a very unusual word for a golfer to use, blanch. But yeah, he could surprise you. He had a little more intellect than you’d expect for a guy who I’m sure wasn’t much of a student.

AS: Arnold and Tiger are so different in so many ways. No writer could get close to Tiger the way you did with Arnold, but Tiger must have appreciated that you solved the mystery of his namesake, right?

TC: He only pretended to care about that because he loved his father. I had decided to go to Vietnam because I didn’t believe a word Earl said. I had to get a Freedom of Information act to make sure he was even in Vietnam. I was in the Marine Corps, but I didn’t do one heroic thing. When people ask me about the Marines, I always say, “I was kind of a hero, but I don’t like to talk about it.” That’s marine speak for I didn’t do one heroic thing. I liked Earl. He was a reprobate and a whoremonger and he was full of s—, but he had a heart on him. I said that to Arnold. This isn’t in the book. I don’t know why—I could have put it in—but Palmer said to me, “I met Earl, but I didn’t know him. What was he like?” I said he’s full of s—, and Arnold laughed so hard. I liked Earl because I knew how to take him.

You know [the writer] John Huggan? I used to live in St. Augustine [Fla.], and Huggan would spend the Players week with me. I went out to get something, and I came back and he was listening to a tape of Earl and me talking. Earl had this beautiful mellifluous voice, and he was saying on the tape, “Tiger was never wrong. He lied to me once when he was a little boy, and it made him physically sick.” And then there was a pause, and you could hear me across the room say, “Earl, he’s the biggest f—ing liar on the PGA Tour.” Earl laughed and said, “Well, you don’t mind if I go on using that story, do you?” Of course, knock yourself out. I can’t really say I know Tiger. I mean, to me the most damning thing that Hank Haney said about him was that he finished his dinner and then would get up and walk out of the restaurant without asking anybody else at the table if they were ready. He’s so self centered it could make you cry.

I hope that the feelings he’s manifesting for his children are real. I hope against hope they are, because if not he’s going to end up the loneliest guy in the history of the planet. The way he treats people, the way he treats the gallery…of course he’s improved on that lately. It reminds me of the great old sportswriter Frank Graham. You’ve probably heard this. He wrote a column about an old Yankee who was always difficult. At the end of his career, Graham wrote what I think was a perfect line: “He’s learning how to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye.” That might suit Tiger a little bit because now you see him walking down fairways talking to his playing partner, and he’s talking to guys on the practice putting green. At least he knows how to feign human emotion.

AS: Is all of this Tiger’s fault or Earl’s?

TC: Oh, poor Tiger. I blame Earl. He assembled his son in a garage, but he left out some human parts.

AS: Tiger is the most dominant golfer of all time, and Arnold’s career was defined largely by heartbreak. I think I know the answer, but which life would you rather have?

TC: There’s no choice, even though Arnold didn’t have the happiest career. He won all of his majors in a six-year window. Ernie Els’s window was 18! Let’s face it, six years—that will surprise a lot of people. But for Arnold, there was kind of a natural happiness to him, and he designed it himself. He figured out that letting people know you and wanting to embrace people is the happier way to go. You’re right, Tiger Woods is the best player I’ve ever seen, and I can’t understand anyone who needs to see [him win] 18 majors to know that. When Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 shots and then a month later the British Open by eight, to me there’s nothing on Jack Nicklaus’s resume that can touch that. I kind of put my money on what Tom Watson said. He and Nicklaus were at an event watching Tiger on a TV monitor, and Watson turned to Nicklaus, and said, “Bear, he’s the best, isn’t he?” And Jack said, “Yes, he is.” That settled it for me. Tiger was the best player I ever saw, but he wasn’t the best guy, probably like [Ben] Hogan wasn’t the best guy. But that was a helluva long time ago.

I went to see Ernie [Els] shortly after Tiger hit the fire hydrant and now he’s declared for the Masters. I’m in Ernie’s home at Lake Nona, and I said, “Where will he finish?” He said fifth. [Woods tied for fourth.] But will he win it? Ernie said no chance. None. I said, “Ernie, if he can finish fourth, he can win it.” He said, “No, there’s a guilt. There’s a conscience.” He said, “I don’t know what to expect from here on, but he won’t be the same.” As for Arnie, Eisenhower once said he was jealous of Palmer, like everybody else. Dwight Eisenhower! He led World War II, and he was president of the United States for eight years. He never lost an election, but he thinks Palmer’s life was better. Like I said, he wasn’t perfect. But he was also protected through the years by the writers. See, he always left it to you. He never said, “This is off the record.” He left it to you to know what was on the record, and a lot of salty things weren’t on the record. Palmer was a guy who tried to make you happy.

One of my favorite little stories was that the guy at The Cleveland Plain-Dealer [George Sweda] took him to his high school reunion. Took him just for the fun of it, and Arnold went along with it. Good luck asking Tiger to join you at your high school reunion. Palmer is the only guy who would do things like that. He absolutely was unique. You asked a lot earlier in this conversation, “Why write a book about Arnold when so much has already been written?” Jenkins says I like people who like me, and there’s a little of that because there’s no doubt [Palmer] liked me. But of course it wasn’t just me. If you were around him more than once, he knew you and he liked you. Or at least that’s how it felt. That was his gift. He gravitated toward the writers. He respected us. And that’s a dying thing now. Of course everything is dying. But anyway, I’m sorry to talk your ear off.

AS: Are you kidding? This has been a blast. I’d say good luck with the book, but you’ve already made it clear you don’t care if it sells. So, safe travels.

TC: You, too. Enjoy Augusta. And when you’re driving, watch out for goats. And kangaroos.