An Afternoon with Arnold Palmer: April 2004

An Afternoon with Arnold Palmer: April 2004

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.
That was only to describe my waist, I hope. It was 29 in the early days.

You've been on our cover 21 times. Do you have a favorite?
I don't like these cigarettes. [Palmer was smoking on the July 1967 cover.]

They gave you quite a battle.
That's so long ago now I've forgotten. In fact I've learned to really not like cigarettes. I don't like the smell.

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?
Strip steaks. But we gave 'em an option of fish too. And chicken.

Masters champions have been known to throw a good party. Any Champions' Dinner moments that still make you laugh?
The fact that a lot of the old traditional guys aren't there anymore has taken a little away. I suppose I can include myself in that group now. From Henry Picard to Craig Wood to Ralph Guldahl, Sam Snead — goodness, he was a riot — and Bobby Jones himself.

Snead would jump up and kick the top of the door frame every year.
Always. Until his death.

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?
The subject has come up and you never know, but not now. I'm not making any predictions.

You have a new fiancee and even a new dog. Are you getting ready to settle down and do some serious nesting?
Serious what? No, I don't think I'll change my lifestyle too much. Since my fiancee is out west and the dog's here alone, I usually bring him to the office with me. Until now, I've always had collies. The first one, when I first got married, I had a mix between a German shepherd and a collie, a fantastic dog. Thunder. The only time he was scared was when it was thundering and lightning. So I named him Thunder. And I had Riley — of course he was named that because he had the life of Riley. And then I had Prince — he was a prince, dog royalty. And now Mulligan — he got his name because I've gotten to the stage where I like a mulligan once in a while.

Have you and Kit set a date?
Not yet.

So you're just like Tiger Woods.
I wish I were more like Tiger, golf-wise.

Do you and Kit play golf together?
Kit used to play, but she's had a bad back and it's curtailed her golf. She's very competitive. We play a lot of dominoes. She usually beats me. And backgammon! She beats me at that too. She's very lucky.

What about Mulligan? Does he join you on the golf course?
My other dogs did and Mulligan will eventually, but first he has to get educated. We're going to train him to behave properly.

You played nine times on the Champions Tour last year and twice on the regular Tour, including The Masters.
I will not play that much. The reason I play at all on tour is I still enjoy the competition and seeing the guys I spent so much of my life with. It's tough not to be able to play the kind of golf that I once played, but I still enjoy the competition, still enjoy being a part of the Champions Tour and a few ceremonial appearances on the regular Tour.

Your two daughters have given you five granddaughters and two grandsons, both of whom are golfers. How are they coming along with the game?
The older one, Sam Saunders, is pretty good. He's 16. The 9-year-old, Will Wears, is just getting into it. He's still interested in baseball. Sam shoots anything from I guess about 65 to 85. I know he had 67 around Bay Hill.

Can he outdrive you?
I'm not even close. He carries it 300 yards. I keep trying to find new drivers to hit it farther. I'm working with all the recent Callaway stuff, with new shafts, new heads. The Speed Stik has helped me a little. It tells you how fast your swing is. I've gotten it up to 105, but my grandson can swing it 125.

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?
From the time I was young I watched what happened in the British Open and the Amateur. I dreamed of playing the way Jones had played and winning the Grand Slam as we knew it in the early days. I just waited until I could afford to go. The first time was 1960 at St. Andrews. Kel Nagle played some good golf to win. I lost by a shot. And then the press — your buddies — talked me into spending a week practicing in southern England at a U.S. Army Air Force base, then going to the French Open only to be turned away.

Who would turn Arnold Palmer away?
The French Golf Union. Some of the British press guys said they'd handle the entry and talked me into staying and playing. Gary Player and I both were turned away; they said the entry was late.

Another great moment in Franco-American relations.
It was quite a moment. I got on an airplane and came home.

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?
I really don't know. I was angry with myself before that happened because I felt I was playing a lot better than my score showed.

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?
That's questionable. They may approach the game far more from a business standpoint than we did.

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.
That happened in Florida at the 1955 St. Pete Open. I'd driven my car from Phoenix to the various stops on the winter tour, and when I got to St. Petersburg, Winnie and I decided it was time to have the car looked over. I took it down to the local service station, and when they hoisted it up, the left-front wheel fell off. I had been driving very fast with a trailer on the back just prior to that.

Do you consider yourself lucky?
Absolutely. Very grateful and very fortunate.

Were you hurt by the backlash over your endorsement of the non-conforming Callaway ERC driver?
People misunderstood my intentions. My disappointment was in some of my friends who were critical of me, but I'm happy that all that has gone away. For the most part, it's forgotten.

Did you pattern yourself after anybody? Your father was obviously a great influence, but he didn't seem the swashbuckling type.
I read books of Nelson and Jones and those people. A lot of golf books. It wasn't meant to be a style; I was just interested in winning and playing. I loved what I was doing and the style that developed was natural.

Do you have any regrets?
I would like to have won more golf tournaments. But I wouldn't sacrifice my life. I've enjoyed it. I'd love to do it again the same way.

Who are the most impressive people you've met?
Certainly Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a good friend, a very close friend. I spent a lot of time with him in the 1960s. We had conversations about life, Army, golf, business, people. Something I will treasure forever.

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?
I can't answer that. I don't want to get into national security issues.

What are the big changes you've noticed in the game in 45 years?
The conditioning of golf courses is so much better today. The one place that everybody enjoyed going to so much was Augusta because it was always immaculate. But today, you have those impeccable conditions everywhere.

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?
I'm just rolling down the stream. I still like building courses. I really want to build a course just the way that I think it should be, which I haven't done. I've always worked at the direction of the owners. The golf course that I would build may not be widely accepted.

You'd be a maverick?
It would be. It would be something along the lines of Pine Valley. My style of doing golf courses now is to satisfy the people I'm doing the golf course for and not one that's going to be an obstacle course. If I built one for myself it might be.

How many golf courses do you have going right now?
Over 40.

It must be hard to keep tabs on that many.
I keep pretty close track. I keep a list and make visits. I'm opening one called Starr Pass in Tucson this week.

Are you alarmed at how some courses are being made obsolete by how far the ball is traveling?
Alarmed? No. But I am concerned that we're not doing some of the things that we should be doing. Merion could still be one of the top courses in America. All they need to do is slow the golf ball down a little bit, and frankly I feel that it will happen someday soon.

Tour pros now routinely make more than $1 million for four days' work. Do you look at those figures and shake your head?
That was part of why I was playing and working, hoping someday it would be like that. I'm pleased by it.

Our readers feel they've been with you for the past 45 years.
That's nice. I like that.

Got a message for them?
For the readers of GOLF MAGAZINE? Well, I'm flattered and appreciate that they've been with me that long. Let's keep it going another few years.

You seem as strong and vital as ever. Are you feeling any effects of aging?
I can't hit it as far, but I'm working on that.

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?
Me? Never.

You don't need Viagra?

Still charging.
Still trying.

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