Arnold Palmer: Meet the New King

Arnold Palmer: Meet the New King

Teenage caddie Lew Echlin carried Arnold Palmer’s bag in a practice round before the 1954 U.S. Amateur — and wanted no more of the job. Instead, Echlin chose to work the scoreboard for $2.50 an hour.

In the fifth round at the Country Club of Detroit, Palmer faced Frank Stranahan, who had beaten him 4 and 3 in the 1950 Amateur and 11 and 10 in the 36-hole semifinal of another event. A week before the ’54 Amateur, Stranahan edged Palmer at the World Amateur, but this round went 3 and 1 to the pride of Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

In the quarterfinals, Palmer faced Texan Don Cherry, a popular singer and the 1953 Canadian Amateur champion. Cherry, who had performed the night before at the nearby Dakota Inn, was singing the blues after losing 1-up.

In the 36-hole semifinal against Edward Meister Jr., Palmer shot 76 in the morning round but was still 1-up after halving the 18th with a double-bogey. “The contestants hit shots that cheered the hearts of duffers in the gallery,” one sportswriter wrote.

In the afternoon, Meister missed putts for the win on three straight holes, from 8, 5 and 16 feet. On the 36th hole, Palmer saved par by pitching from a grassy hollow to a front pin on a green that sloped severely away. “I doubt that Arnold ever hit a more miraculous shot,” his friend and agent Mark McCormack later wrote. There’s now a plaque on the spot celebrating Palmer’s title run. “That was my shot of the tournament,” says Palmer today. He won on the third extra hole.

In the final he faced Robert Sweeny, a dashing investment banker from tony Sands Point, New York. The 1937 British Amateur champ, Sweeny had attended Oxford University, where he met Ian Fleming and was rumored to have inspired Fleming’s most famous character, James Bond. During World War II, Sweeny helped organize the Eagle Squadron, a group of American pilots who flew for the Royal Air Force, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was said to have given strokes to Ben Hogan when they played at Seminole, one of Sweeny’s home courses. “We hailed from different galaxies,” noted Palmer, son of a club pro/greenkeeper.

Sweeny jumped ahead with three early birdies, then approached his foe as they left the 5th tee. Throwing his arm around the young man, Sweeny said, “You can be sure of one thing — I can’t go on like this much longer.”

Two down through 18 holes, Palmer charged to a 1-up victory on the 36th hole. The match ended when Palmer’s drive found the fairway while Sweeny’s hopped into thick rough. After a failed search, Sweeny said, “Congratulations, Arnie, you win.” The tournament director signaled a brass band on the clubhouse terrace, and the band launched into “Hail to the Chief.”

Palmer hugged his crying mother, Doris, and searched the crowd for his famously circumspect father, Deacon. At last their eyes met. Deacon Palmer said, “You did pretty good, boy.”

Had Palmer lost, he might never have met his future wife. He was a paint salesman in Cleveland, where his boss gave him time off to play in a later tournament only because Palmer had won the Amateur. There he met Winifred Walzer. They were married for 45 years, until her death in 1999.

“Was the ’54 Amateur the turning point in my career? No question about it,” says Palmer. “I suspect I would have played professional golf even if I hadn’t won, but I don’t know when. My boss was very insistent that I continue to work for him.”

The King stranded in Cleveland, selling paint? “That was a possibility,” he says. “But when you start supposing, your whole life is a suppose.”

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