DENVER — There is one thing that separates the Palmer Cup (it’s Team USA vs. Europe with college players, in a Ryder Cup style format) from other collegiate golf events. Arnold Palmer. Heavy morning rain washed out Tuesday’s planned outing — amateurs playing with the 16 tournament competitors — and pushed the opening ceremonies indoors inside Cherry Hills’ exquisite clubhouse.
Nobody was bothered because they were treated to a heavy dose of host Arnold Palmer, who shared his passion for the game, held a question-and-answer session with the players and friends after he’d already spoken at the opening ceremony, and generally regaled the room with stories of his life in golf. For a legend who’s turning 80 later this year, Palmer is still as full of fun and goodwill as ever. His unscheduled Q&A lasted well over an hour and was filled with anecdotes and laughs. Asked if he’d ever had to overcome any obstacles during his playing career that held him back, Palmer replied, “Yes — Nicklaus and Player!” The room burst into laughter with him.
The rainout turned out to be a delightful afternoon with Arnie and friends. The opening ceremonies were succinct but meaningful. The two captains, Dean Robertson of Europe and Matt Thurmond of the University of Washington, introduced their respective eight-man teams. That included my son, Mike Van Sickle, a recent graduate of Marquette University and the reason I am here spectating before heading off to cover the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio, later this week.
One highlight of the opening was a framed photo of Palmer famously tossing his red visor into the gallery when he won the 1960 U.S. Open here at Cherry Hills with a final-round charge. The club contacted the United States Golf Association, who helped track down the youngster who took Palmer’s visor home that day and preserved it all these years. He’s no longer a youngster, but he graciously allowed the visor to be borrowed so it could be copied and gladly attended Tuesday’s ceremony. So it was a moving gesture when replica red visors were produced, each personally signed by Palmer, who gave each player a handshake and a visor in a brief procession at the front of the room.
So it’s safe to say that Mike Van Sickle is having a pretty good week. He went to Toledo last Thursday to accept the Byron Nelson Award, a prestigious honor given to a player for his golfing skills and his character and academics. Jack Nicklaus was the speaker that night, so Mike met him and had his photo taken with Nicklaus and the Nelson plaque. The next day, Mike was named a first-team All-American, a bit of a surprise because players from non-traditional golf powers usually get overlooked for post-season honors. He seemed an obvious choice with five victories this season, plus he ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring average and birdies per round, but you never know. Today, he shakes Palmer’s hand and gets a signed visor.
After the ceremony, a woman came up to Mike and asked if he’d driven the first green in Monday’s practice round. Mike said he had. She said, I heard about you. Palmer began his final-round Open charge in 1960 by remarkably driving the green and making a birdie. I asked Mike what happened and he admitted, yes, he hit driver to about 15 feet (the hole plays around 340-350 yards). Did you make the putt, I asked? He laughed. “No, I pretty much lagged it close and made birdie,” he said.
Yes, it was a good week for him.
Palmer remembered how he’d made a double bogey 6 on the opening hole in the Open’s first round when he tried to drive the green. He pushed it right, into a ditch with running water. His ball was floating downhill, toward the green. That’s when he looked up and saw Joe Dey, head of the USGA, who asked his intentions. Palmer said he intended to let it float down by the green and take a drop there. “I don’t think so,” Palmer said Dey told him. So Palmer took a drop from where the ball entered the hazard and made his double. His scores on the opening hole for the four rounds were, in order, 6-5-4-3.
It’s a hole that has a special meaning for Palmer. “I’ve got news for you guys,” Palmer told the players assembled at the front of the room. “I’m going to be out on that first tee watching.” The players laughed. “If anybody has a 2-iron or 3-iron or fairway wood out, I’m going to take it away and hand you your driver,” Palmer said, getting another hearty response.
Later in the relaxed Q&A, he also talked about how he told his friend, Pittsburgh newspaper writer Bob Drum, that nobody would ever win the old Grand Slam that Bobby Jones won, the U.S. and British Opens and U.S. and British Amateurs, and that the Grand Slam should be modified to be the Masters, U.S. and British Opens, and the PGA. Drum wrote it, the national media picked it up and thus, in 1960, the modern Grand Slam was invented.
Palmer went over early for the 1960 British Open and with some free time, turned up in Paris to play the French Open. Rather than welcome golf’s newest superstar, Palmer said, the French rejected his entry. “When Gary Player heard I was going, he came in, too, and they did the same thing to him,” Palmer said. Pausing for effect, he added, “I was pissed.”
His audience exploded in laughter again. While re-examining his famous drive to the first green at Cherry Hills, he talked about the Hogan Apex driver he used to hit the shot. He’d been talking to Ben Hogan at the Masters and Hogan gave him a couple of the Apex drivers to use. Palmer took a liking to one and began using it in competition. Palmer added that he modified the driver cosmetically to make it look like the Wilson Staff driver he was supposed to be endorsing and playing. “Don’t tell anyone,” he whispered loudly. “It’s a secret.”
Not a single golf shot was struck Tuesday at Cherry Hills and the first USA-Europe matches were moved back to Thursday morning. Yet the Palmer Cup got off to the most rousing start in its relatively brief history thanks to a 79-year-old man who loves the game and the people who play the game.