Since the announcement of his death last week (Sept. 25), lots of photos have been posted of golf legend Arnold Palmer. However, this is how I remember him – the total professional standing off to the side, cool, collected, waiting to wallop that little white ball straight down the fairway. (I went out and bought a golf sweater just like Palmer’s hoping it would help my game. I looked good, but it didn’t help.)
When I interviewed Palmer in March of 2001 for my book, What Do You Stand For?, he was just as gentlemanly on the phone as he was around a larger crowd.
Before beginning our interview, I revealed that one of my favorite recollections from the ’60s was going on “field maneuvers” with Arnie’s Army at the Los Angeles Open. I had just begun learning to play the game and feeling more than a little frustrated after hitting the ball everywhere but where I wanted it to go.
Me: I don’t know which course it was but there’s a plaque on one of them, which shows that you took an eleven because you kept hitting the ball from one side of the fairway to other. I thought, if Arnold Palmer has a bad day and can come back, maybe I should hang in there.
Palmer: Actually, it was Rancho Park and it was my last hole and it was the ninth hole on the Gold course and that’s where the plaque is and it was twelve.
The saga of Arnold Palmer began when he was four years old, swinging his first set of golf clubs, cut down by his father, “Deacon” Palmer, who worked at Latrobe Country Club. Before long, Arnie was playing well enough to beat the older caddies at the club. The influence his father had on his life as well as his game was significant. The following response comes from both a phone interview and his autobiography, A Golfer’s Life, written with James Dodson.
“I have always felt that you should treat everyone like you’d like to be treated and I’ve practiced that with almost everything I do.
“My father prided himself on simple, clear logic. He was a very honest man with great integrity, and a lot of very heavy feelings about people and how they should be treated. He was a golf course superintendent and a Golf Pro. And he was very protective of the people that worked for him. Sometimes, in country clubs, you have a situation where maybe the people that are working at the club are not given the same respect that he felt they should.
“Not surprisingly, he had the same simple reverence for the rules of the game. The rules were there to be followed, because that meant the game would be the same kind of challenge for everybody. He was the man I most admired in the world. He was the man whose hard rules and painful lessons had made me everything I’d become, everything I stood for.
“He was as rigid and unyielding on the rules of the game as any USGA official I ever knew, and that’s one reason I learned the rules thoroughly at an early age. He preached relentlessly on the importance of replacing divots and repairing pitch marks, and woe be unto the player — regardless of whether it was his own son or the club president — who failed to treat the golf course with the kind of respect Pap deemed necessary and proper.
“He developed even more rigid beliefs about what was right and what was wrong, what a good man did or didn’t do. You didn’t borrow money. You didn’t take what wasn’t yours; you didn’t lie, cheat, or steal.
“It was also drilled into me that a golf course was a place where character fully reveals itself — both its strengths and its flaws. As a result, I learned early not only to fix my ball marks but also to congratulate an opponent on a good shot, avoid walking ahead of a player preparing to shoot, remain perfectly still when someone else was playing, and a score of other small courtesies that revealed, in my father’s mind, one’s abiding respect for the game. In a nutshell, Pap had no patience with people who chose to ignore the rules and traditions that made golf the most gentlemanly game on earth.
“Pap, in almost every respect, was a modest man, but he burned with a wisdom and intensity about what it took to accomplish great things that was far beyond his own experience. His way of looking at things would prove invaluable to me.
- A smart man learns early what he does best and keeps on doing it.
- Be prepared.
- Stay focused until the job is finished.
- Respect everyone regardless of their skin color or nationality.
- Anytime you think you are the best you can be, just remember, there is always some guy out there just waiting to beat you. Don’t brag about what you’ve accomplished and don’t tell people what you’re gonna do – keep your mouth shut, keep your mind on your own business and show them!
“Bob Jones, my first golf hero, once commented that he never learned anything from a golf tournament he won. For better or worse, those moments of unaccountable loss or failure teach us the most about who we are, where we’ve come from and where we may be headed.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that we need to be constantly challenged to examine ourselves and see what we can give back to this life. I see my primary role as someone who feels a moral obligation to take care of the game that enriched his own life so profoundly, to fuss a little bit when I feel it’s necessary, to do whatever it takes to make sure I pass along a game that is in even better shape than I found it.”
New York Times reporter Dave Anderson writes (Sept. 25), “…in the United States Open at Cherry Hills, near Denver, [Palmer] shot a final-round 65 to win by two over Nicklaus.
“ ‘I seem to play my best in a big tournament,’ Palmer said. ‘For one thing, my game is better adapted to the tougher courses. For another, I can get myself more keyed up when an important title is at stake. I like competition — the more rugged, the better.’ ”
John Owens, a friend of 40 years who passed a couple of months ago, shared a similar story.
“Mr. Palmer received a letter stamped from San Diego,” Owens told me, “in which this guy goes on and on about how Palmer doesn’t know who he thinks he is, and that he could whip him and bet any kind of money.
“If he signed the letter and gave me his phone number, John,” Palmer said, “I would have called the son-of-a-bitch and challenged him to a game.”