PGA Championship is only missing piece in Palmer’s legacy

August 9, 2012

PGA week must be very tough on Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. Of the hundreds of thousands of shots they played in their careers, both men needed to slice off just a couple to have complete career grand slams. Neither ever hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy, as somebody will at Kiawah at the end of the week.

At a British Open some years ago, I was sitting one night at dinner with Jeff Sluman and Watson. Watson has five Opens. Sluman has one PGA. Sluman said, “I’ll trade you my PGA for two of your Opens.” I had the feeling Watson would have taken the deal. He lost the ’78 PGA at Oakmont in a playoff won by John Mahaffey.

It frosts Palmer that he never won the PGA. He finished second in ’64, ’68 and ’70. His father, Deacon, was a PGA pro from 1931 until his death in 1976. Arnold is a PGA pro to this day, but he wasn’t allowed to play in the ’56 and ’57 PGA Championships. He was still a PGA apprentice, and that kept him out. Another PGA of America technicality kept him off the ’59 Ryder Cup team.

It was a different day. Back then, Arnold was Arnie, at least to the newspaper reporters and the men and women in Arnie’s Army. (Never Arnold’s Army.) My father-in-law always referred to Palmer as Arnie. Maybe yours did, too.

But now he’s more often Arnold, and he’s getting to be as famous for the drink that bears his name than he is for his playing record. In Philadelphia, where I live, city buses roam all over town bearing huge ads for the Arnold Palmer, the Arizona iced tea product, if you believe iced tea can come from a can. (It can’t.)

There’s a picture of Arnold that runs with it that I find amusing: Arnold, in follow-through, silver locket of hair on his forehead, a shot taken circa 1980, long after his prime. Why that snap? The shot, I’m nearly certain, was taken by Arnold’s dentist, Howdy Giles, who has ball markers made out of old Arnold fillings. Arnold generates more stories than any other golfer, still. Anybody who has ever had an encounter with him has a story.

In March of 2000, during the Florida Swing, I was eating in the California Pizza Kitchen on PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens. I asked my teenage waitress for an iced tea and lemonade mixed together. She said, “Oh, you mean an Arnold Palmer.”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you know who that is?”

“No,” she said. “I just know it’s the name of a drink.

I told her he was a great golfer from long before she was born.

The check came. A computerized check from a big national restaurant chain. Right on the check it said ARNOLD PALMER.

The next day I was with Arnold Palmer, seeing him for a story. He was in his workroom, at Bay Hill. He was bending clubs in a vise. That’s his hobby. I told him about my experience at California Pizza Kitchen. He got out his slender cellphone. I hadn’t thought of Arnold Palmer as somebody who would even have a cellphone, but there it was. He called his business manager, Alastair Johnston. He repeated the story. He said to Johnston, “Do we have a name-rights issue we need to be looking into here?” I hadn’t thought of Arnold Palmer as somebody who would use the phrase “name-rights issue.”

Evidently, Arnold had been hearing a lot of that. Within a few years, Arnold Palmer had a licensing deal that got his name attached to the Arizona product, through the efforts of a company called Innovative Flavors. Now it’s everywhere. Part of the deal is that Arnold has veto power over the recipe, if he doesn’t like the taste. He hasn’t had to use it.

Last summer, I was having lunch with Arnold at the Latrobe Country Club, where his father started as course superintendent in 1924. I ordered an Arnold Palmer and told Arnold that my mother was making them in the ’60s. She mixed iced tea with orange juice, too. He said, “Your mother did that?” He seemed impressed.

The other day, my son and I were out for a late-night snack at a restaurant in Philadelphia called Winnie’s Le Bus. It so happens that Arnold’s late wife, the mother of his daughters, was named Winnie. There’s a Winnie Palmer Hospital in Orlando for women and babies. I ordered an Arnold Palmer. The check came and on it were the words ARNIE PALMER. That was a new one on me.

I called Doc Giffin, who has been Arnold’s right-hand man for nearly 50 years. He’s one-of-a-kind, a pro and a gent. That was a new one on him, too. Arnold was always Arnold to him, although he did say that  Winnie sometimes called her husband Arnie.

I asked Doc if he thought the day would ever come when Arnold was better known for the drink that bears his name than for his golf record, which includes four Masters, two U.S. Opens, one British Open, but, alas, no PGA Championship. “Maybe in 50 years,” Doc said, “but not for now.”

It was another unbearably hot summer day in Pennsylvania in a summer that’s had too many of them.

I asked Doc how Arnold felt about it when people knew his name for a drink and not his golf.

“Oh, he’s fine with it,” Doc said. “In Japan, we sell a lot of clothes, part of the Arnold Palmer clothing line, and we get reports that some customers don’t know the name but just like the clothes, as if Arnold Palmer is another design line like Tommy Hilfiger. Of course, I have no idea who the hell Tommy Hilfiger is.”

We talked about the PGA Championship. Doc remembered the ’66 PGA, at Firestone. (Last year’s PGA champion, Keegan Bradley, won last week’s event at Firestone.) Al Geiberger won in ’66 with 280. (When I caddied for him years later, he had a bright-red kangaroo-skin bag, which Spalding gave its big-name players. Craig Stadler had one, and Greg Norman did, too.) Arnold had a top-10 finish.

His close friend Tony Lema died on that Sunday, flying from Akron on a small private plane to an outing near Chicago. The plane, out of fuel, crashed on the property of the Lansing Country Club. One of golf’s great tragedies. Lema won the ’64 British Open with Arnold’s regular British Open caddie, Tip Anderson. Lema only played in three PGAs. Life will throw you some damn curves, won’t it? He was 32.

Arnold played in 36 PGAs and never finished better than second. In ’68, Julius Boros beat him. In ’70, it was Dave Stockton. Twenty-one years later, Stockton was the mastermind behind a U.S. Ryder Cup victory at Kiawah.

Arnold not winning the PGA “was always a bitter disappointment for him,” Doc said. If the conversation comes up, it’s often during the PGA. Arnold watches the golf. Jack doesn’t watch all that much, but Arnold does. Sam Snead did, too.

In the Kiawah clubhouse this week, loads of people will be ordering Arnold Palmers. How nice for them. The guy who hoists the massive trophy Sunday night will see these engraved names, among others: Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan, the only players in the modern era to have won the career grand slam.

And Arnold, bless him, will be thinking again about what could have been. But he’ll be OK. He’s led a hell of a life, and he’s got immortality all sewn up, and not because of a drink.