Commentary

King of the course and King of the track hold court

Richard Petty is The King. Arnold Palmer is The King. What happens when they hold court together? Ryan McGee had to find out.

Updated: August 14, 2008, 4:42 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A double dose of royalty paraded into Greensboro on Wednesday.

On a rainy afternoon before to the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship (you may remember it as the Greater Greensboro Open), The King and The King of Stock Car Racing met in the clubhouse of Sedgefield Country Club to kick off the tournament, exchange gifts and shake hands. Those hands have combined to win nearly 300 events, including seven major championships and seven Daytona 500's.

Arnold Palmer was born in 1929, the son of Latrobe, Pa., golf pro and greenskeeper Deacon Palmer. Eight years later, Richard Petty arrived in Randleman, N.C., born to local dirt track racer Lee Petty. Both boys idolized their fathers and both took up their paternal professions.

Richard Petty
AP PhotoRichard Petty won the first race of his career in 1960 at the Southern State Fairgrounds in Charlotte.

In 1955, Palmer made his PGA Tour debut. Three years later, Petty made his first NASCAR start. Palmer's last significant victory came in the 1993 Senior Skins Game, just a few weeks after Petty's last race behind the wheel.

What the two men accomplished during the years in between was nothing less than save their respective sports. Palmer brought the elitist game to the masses, while Petty drove his redneck sport straight down Madison Avenue.

On Wednesday, the two Kings chatted about golf carts, race cars and, well, whatever else they wanted to talk about. You don't argue with the royals, you just follow their lead. Oh by the way, as soon as they arrived, the rain stopped and clouds parted. Just thought we'd point that out.

Ryan McGee: Richard, would you consider yourself a member of Arnie's Army?

Petty [leaning on his newly received Arnold Palmer putter like it was a walking stick]: Oh yeah. Arnold is the guy who let my people know that golf was OK for everybody, know what I mean? Before he came along I don't think people from my neck of the woods -- and I really do mean woods -- even knew that golf was going on. But here was this guy who said, "Y'all come on over here and check this out. I promise we won't bite."

Palmer [wearing his newly received Richard Petty cowboy hat]: I think that Richard had a similar effect on auto racing. He brought it up to a level that let big business and the TV networks know that they needed to get on board. I don't know if you can go anywhere in America and find someone who doesn't know Richard and this hat [points to his own head]. Even people that have never watched a race know who he is, and that's good for everyone in his sport.

Petty: The racetrack didn't make me who I am today. The fans did.

Palmer: Hear, hear.

Petty: It seems like there's always somebody that came along to do what they needed to do when they did it, you know? Babe Ruth showed up when baseball needed it. Michael Jordan did it for basketball. Arnold Palmer showed up when golf needed a shot in the arm. I hope when people look back on history they'll view the Pettys that way.

Palmer: They already do.

McGee: You both developed your love for your respective sports because of your fathers, right?

Palmer: Absolutely. My father cut my first set of clubs for me when I was just a kid. I was caddying by the time I was 11. I didn't know Richard's father, but I suspect he's the man he is because of who his father was, just as his son, Kyle, is such a fine man because of who Richard is.

Petty: And you know what? If my dad had been a golfer, I'd probably be a golfer. And if Arnold's dad had been a racer, he'd be a racer. Daddy [a three-time NASCAR champion] took me to racetracks all over the country when I was just a teenager. He let me work on his race cars, but he wouldn't let me race until I was 21. Right after my birthday we headed down to Columbia, South Carolina, and I was finally racing.

McGee: That was 50 years ago, right?

Petty: Yep, this past July. We had a big deal about it, see? [Points to his shiny new 50th anniversary belt buckle he was given to commemorate the event.]

McGee: Mr. Palmer, you just had an anniversary as well.

Arnold Palmer
AP PhotoArnold Palmer won his second major, and here his first green jacket, in 1960. He's giving wife Winnie a hug after winning the Masters.

Palmer: Yes, I did, my first win at the Masters was fifty years ago this spring. [Points to the Masters logo on his green pullover jacket.] That's hard to believe, isn't it?

McGee: It's also hard to believe how much your sports have changed over those 50 years.

Palmer: Without a doubt, we were in the right place at the right time, weren't we, Richard?

Petty: Exactly. I just kind of took care of my deal, went out and tried to win races and do what was right for me, and the sport just kind of grew with me.

McGee: He's being a little modest isn't he?

Palmer: Always. That's one of the reasons people have loved him so much over the years. It's why I always followed his career. We've crossed paths at a lot of different events over the years. There's a kinship there. During the press conference earlier I referred to him as my brother and I mean that.

Petty: I followed your career because we ran kind of parallel. I grew up just down the road and really the only thing I knew about golf was the tournament in Greensboro. What's the guy's name that used to come up here and win it all the time?

Palmer: Sam Snead.

Petty: Yeah, Snead. I thought he owned this place.

Palmer: [Laughs] He did. The reason I always wanted to win this tournament so badly is because Sam held the record for wins here [eight].

Petty: Did you?

Palmer: No, I was on my way to winning it in 1962, but I did myself in on number 16. It's a tough par 3, always has been. Still is.

Petty: I think my son Kyle wrecked down there earlier today.

McGee: Richard, your father was a huge golfer, and Kyle has become addicted over the last couple of years. But you've never played.

Petty: Nope. Never have. When do I have time to go golfing? I've always been either racing or on my way to a race. I can't stick around to watch the golf here this weekend because I've got to get to Michigan to watch my cars [as owner of Petty Enterprises].

Palmer: Well, I just gave you the nicest putter I have, so you'd better start.

Petty: You're going to need to put on my racing helmet if you're going to play golf with me. But my Daddy was a big-time golfer. Played all the way up into his 80s. When he first quit driving, he still kept an eye on me and brother while we were working for the race team. Then one day he just he just walked in, grabbed his golf clubs and said, "Alright, boys, the race team is yours. Good luck. I'm headed to the golf course." From then on, we'd be working on the cars in the shop and he'd be out in the yard hitting golf balls.

McGee: Would you guys ever be willing to give one another "driving" lessons?

Palmer: I told him that if he's going to drive me around the track, then I'll take him up in my plane.

Petty: Arnold here's a pretty serious pilot.

Palmer: It's the only time I get to go faster than you.

Petty: We have a plane, but they won't let me near the controls. They've seen me crash race cars too much, so they stick me in the back. But I could drive your golf cart. You ever turned a golf cart over?

Palmer: No … but I've come pretty close.

McGee: Your two sports are the ones that some fans and writers like to pick on, saying that golfers and race car drivers aren't really athletes. I suspect you've honed your argument for that pretty well over the years.

Petty: I get that all the time. People say we aren't athletes because we depend on our cars. Well, everybody depends on something. You ever see a golfer without a club? Anybody that thinks what we do isn't athletic needs to spend some time with me in that race car or on the course with him.

Palmer: [Laughs] What he said.

McGee: Both of you have reluctantly stopped competing. They say every great champ has one last big win left in him. Do you still get the itch to give it to these young guys?

Petty: I don't know. [Smiles] I spent the last seven or eight years of my career pretty much blowing that theory up.

Palmer: Young players still come up and ask me for advice. [Defending tournament champion] Brandt Snedeker wanted my advice just a few minutes ago. That kind of respect is good enough for me. But sometimes I sure wish I could turn back the clock and play with them.

McGee: Alright, last question. Once and for all, who's the real King?

Palmer and Petty, simultaneously: He is.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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