Commentary

Palmer hits legendary landmark

Originally Published: September 9, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

Arnold PalmerDavid Cannon/Getty ImagesOf Arnold Palmer's career wins, he often says the 1954 U.S. Amateur as his most important triumph.

There were no silver spoons in Latrobe, Pa. Not in 1929, at least, and certainly not for Arnold Daniel Palmer, born Sept. 10, just seven weeks before the biggest stock market crash in history.

No, Arnold was born into a blue-collar family in a blue-collar town. Located along the route of the Pennsylvania Railroad, this was a place of industry, best known for the brewery that employed so many of its residents.

Deacon Palmer, however, worked at the local golf course, Latrobe Country Club, maintaining what was then a nine-hole track. His son would accompany him to the course, and soon young Arnold became extremely proficient in the game, rising to the ranks of top amateur and, later, among the greatest professionals in the history of the game. The final tally was 92 career titles, including seven major championships.

"I still enjoy looking back and seeing things that I had then and things that have happened in the years gone by," Palmer said recently. "It reminds me that I was fortunate enough to have a lot of fun playing golf."

The man known simply as Arnie turns 80 this week, reason enough to celebrate a lifetime filled with golf-related memories.


1954: SYLVANIA COUNTRY CLUB, NEAR TOLEDO, OHIO
"The first time I saw Arnold was about the same time I first heard about him. It was my first Ohio State Amateur and Arnold was the defending champion. After coming off the course one day in a rainstorm, I took a spot under a tree and watched the only golfer out on the range that day. It was Arnold. He was all alone out there, beating balls with a short iron.

"What I remember most was the sound created as the balls cracked off the clubface. Just as Gary Player always described, it was like thunderclaps. I don't think he ever noticed me standing there, but I was fascinated by him. Here was this guy with wide shoulders and muscular forearms, just beating balls. I walked in the clubhouse and asked, 'Who was that out there hitting golf balls? Man, is he strong?' They said, 'That's our defending champion, Arnold Palmer.' Later, during that week, I was introduced to Arnold and impressed by how friendly he was to me. That's when I first saw or really had a recollection of who Arnold Palmer was. He went on to win the National Amateur that same year." -- Jack Nicklaus


The first nationally televised golf broadcast aired in 1953, but it wasn't until Palmer came along that these telecasts became especially popular.

In fact, many of his peers -- not to mention those who came later -- credit Arnie with bringing not only increased attention to the sport but larger purses and more sponsorship dollars, as well.

"He brought in a lot of money for players that was outside of the playing of golf but was related to golf," Billy Casper says. "He helped build contracts with manufacturers and companies and made a great contribution to golf, both on and off the golf course."

"He was the golfer who drove the economics of our tour, much like Tiger Woods is driving the economics of the tour today," Tom Watson maintains. "He did a tremendous amount to promote the game. He certainly made a lot of money doing that, but he also promoted the game. Lee Trevino once said, 'Ninety-five percent of the people would rather watch Arnold Palmer unpack the trunk of his car than watch anyone else go out and play.' And that's what Arnold Palmer means to the game. He has lasted as an icon to the game throughout his entire career."

"Without Arnold and without Bing Crosby and without Bob Hope, I'm not sure golf would be the same sport that it is today," says Fuzzy Zoeller. "Those three guys got it on TV, got it in front of the public."


MID-1960s: ZIMBABWE, AFRICA
"We were in a hotel … and we were talking about all these wild kinds of snakes that they have in that area. He was rooming next door to me with Mark McCormack, who was [with] IMG at the time. I crawled along the ledge -- now this was on the third floor and I hate heights -- I put my face and you know how you put your lips up against the window? And I had my hands up there. He was sitting with Mark and turned around and saw me, and he jumped so high! They had all these snakes and animals on their minds, since we were in the middle of Africa. We had a great laugh about that." -- Gary Player


Arnie, Jack and Gary.

Last names weren't necessary -- nor are they today -- and, really, one could simply refer to the entire trio as the Big Three. They were rivals, sure, but friends first, forging relationships that have stood the test of time through more than half a century.

Ask Nicklaus, and he still remembers Palmer's unique gesture before their playoff in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

"He came up to me before our [Sunday] playoff and asked me if I wanted to split the purse," Nicklaus recalls. "He was being a nice guy because I was a young kid and he was trying to help me out. I ended up saying, 'No, let's just play for it.' You know what it amounted to? It was like $1,400. Back then, the players shared in the gate of the playoff, and our share was, like, $1,400. So we played for it. But still, it was the gesture that impacted me -- Arnold offering to take care of this young guy, a first-year pro."

Player still speaks of Palmer in much the same vein, showing both respect and admiration for his longtime foe.

"Arnold and I grew up and played golf throughout our careers together," he said. "We were fierce competitors against each other, but obviously had great respect for each other and great affection. He's been a wonderful role model not only to young people but everybody -- in the United States and around the world."


1967: CHAMPIONS GOLF CLUB, HOUSTON
"When Ben Hogan was captain of the Ryder Cup team in Houston, he had written a letter to all of the players who had qualified for the team. He wanted us in early; because of the nature of the tournament, we could play either the large balls or the small balls. Arnie, of course, had all of his commitments and things, and he couldn't get in until Wednesday night. I was on the 17th fairway and was about to hit my second shot when I heard this airplane. I turned around, and it was Arnie in his old Aero Commander. He had the flaps down and the wheels, and he came in over the fairway and buzzed me. I could have hit a wedge over his airplane. Jimmy Demaret said it's the only time he's ever seen an airplane fly under the eaves of the clubhouse.

"He landed it at the airport about a mile away, and of course the FAA was there and saw who it was; they understood what was going on with the Ryder Cup, so they let it pass. But what Arnie had done is he had taken Tony Jacklin and George Will on a ride. And since he was the pilot, he did a little acrobatics up there. Well, he scared George Will so bad that he wet himself. And so he came in and he was a great credit to the team that year in that he disturbed the demeanor of two of the European players." -- Billy Casper


When discussing Palmer's relevance -- his popularity with the fans, his integral work in making golf a game for the masses, his relationships with fellow players -- one aspect of the man's career often goes too unrecognized. The man was one hell of a golfer.

Arnie might not have owned Ben Hogan's sweet maneuver through the ball nor Bobby Locke's buttery putting stroke, but it was never a secret that he could flat-out play the game.

"I remember the tip he gave me about putting from just off the green," Nicklaus says. "We were playing, and I chipped a ball from just off the green. He recommended that I putt the ball, saying that often your worst putt will still be better than your best chip. I still pass that along to players today."

Even today's players can sift through the old footage and recognize a man who possessed pure talent in his game.

"When I was young, I remember watching old highlights of Arnold and being mesmerized when he made his typical charge," Tiger Woods recalls. "When he played, he was so charismatic and perfect for TV."


1975: LAUREL VALLEY GOLF CLUB, LIGONIER, PA.
"Well, my first Ryder Cup in 1975, Arnie was the captain. He was still a pretty good player at that time, as well, and we had a very strong team. Those were the days when the U.S. team was going to win; it was just a matter of by how much. But that wasn't good enough for Arnie. In one of the team meetings, he was very serious in saying that he didn't want the other team to make a point. It was emphatically driven into us. 'I don't want them to make a point,' he said.

"This was my first Ryder Cup, and I'd only been on the tour about 6½, 7 years, so I wasn't real familiar with all the personalities. I remember that about Arnie and how it struck me as, 'Wow. This guy is really into it. We're going to win.' You know, the confidence level was there, but you never know if you're going to win. Well, here we are in 2009 and I still remember that, so there must have been something that was pretty strong about that message. I think that indicated to me what Arnold Palmer is made of: Strive for excellence and take no prisoners." -- Hale Irwin


For a man with such a lengthy, legendary career, Palmer's window of success was narrow. After turning pro in 1954 after a stint at Wake Forest University and another with the Coast Guard, it took him four years to capture his first major championship, earning those honors by defeating Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins by a single stroke to claim the first of four titles at Augusta National.

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Augusta National/Getty ImagesArnold Palmer slips on the first of the four green jackets he won in his career. Palmer's fan base, affectionately known as "Arnie's Army," got its name in his early years of playing at The Masters.

He won the Masters in each even-numbered year from 1958 to 1964 and sprinkled in a pair of British Open victories and a memorable U.S. Open triumph over Nicklaus at Cherry Hills in 1960. He never won a major outside that seven-year span, though, and never won the PGA Championship, which he considers perhaps his greatest regret.

"I'm sorry that I haven't won the PGA Championship," he stated recently. "That would be something that would have pleased me very much. I suppose when I look back, I have a lot of reasons and excuses for not having won the PGA."

That's not to say that victories weren't plentiful throughout his career. Palmer won 62 times on the PGA Tour -- plus 30 more in international, senior and exhibition events -- one of the last of which came at the 1971 Bob Hope Desert Classic in a playoff over Raymond Floyd.

"He was 41 years old, and I was 28," Floyd remembers. "Here I am in a playoff with him. Everybody in the gallery is pulling for him -- and I knew it, because I was pulling for him, as well."


1980: MUIRFIELD GOLF COURSE, MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND
"I finished my practice round, and I was sitting in the locker room there having a Coke. He came walking in with Jerry Pate, and Jerry was pretty loud in sticking the needle to Arnold that he just beat him out of some money in a practice round. This went on for about four or five minutes. Jerry kept on sticking the needles in Arnold. Finally, Arnold had enough, and he said, 'Tommy, let's go play these bastards.' So we went out and played an emergency nine. This was the Wednesday before the Open! You'd never see that today. But we went out and played another nine holes and just about cleaned their clocks. We made every putt, and Arnold had the last laugh on Jerry Pate." -- Tom Watson


It wasn't just a catchy name for Palmer's legions of boisterous supporters; "Arnie's Army" was a conscious tie-in to the military, first introduced by U.S. soldiers.

At the 1958 Masters -- which was to become his first major championship victory -- troops from nearby Fort Gordon were recruited to run the scoreboards at Augusta National. They took a liking to everyman Palmer -- who didn't? -- and soon enough, spawned the most prominent fan base in golf history.

Perhaps buoyed by these proponents, Arnie was able to let them do the talking while he remained on amicable terms with opponents.

"All of a sudden, when somebody else came along and started beating him, he didn't run and hide. Arnold just tried to get more competitive and came back and tried to play," Nicklaus says. "I respected that. He always respected me. He never fought me; he always respected me. Over the years, people have made more of a rivalry than they should. Our rivalry has always been wonderfully competitive, but never bitter. It was and still is a friendly rivalry. I've always said there were times I might have had to battle Arnie's Army, but I never had to battle Arnie himself -- except with a golf club and on a golf course."

"Thank goodness that he chose golf because he's one of those people that transcends the sport that he plays," contends Ben Crenshaw. "He has been so great for the game of golf. We have been so appreciative of his efforts over his whole life. I mean, he has never changed. He has been as consistent as anyone in the way that he treats people, and I think that's very evident in the people who have met him. It seems like he has met half the country. And he does it in a way that is very unique."

It's a sentiment that lives on today. Palmer rarely, if ever, turns down a photograph or autograph request and remains one of the game's most popular figures long into his retirement from competitive golf.

"He has kept the imagination of the fans for such a long, long time," Casper notes. "He has been a great credit to the game of golf -- not only on the course but off the course. I feel that it's a great honor in my life to have had the opportunity to be in his presence because he's meant so much to the game of golf."


EARLY 1980s: ANNANDALE GOLF CLUB, PASADENA, CALIF.
"I was signing an autograph for someone in front of Arnie. He looked down at my scribble and said, 'What is that?' I said, 'It's my autograph.' He said, 'That's fine if you're signing a bank check, but when you're autographing a piece of memorabilia for someone, you had better make it legible.' I thought to myself, you know, he's right; it's no fun to get an autograph if you can't even tell who it is from. So now I always sign my name clearly, do a little sketch for them or something." -- Peter Jacobsen


Even today, 54 years after his first professional victory, 45 years after his last major championship, 36 years after his last PGA Tour title and five years since he last teed it up in a major, Palmer still keeps pretty close tabs on the golf world, often spending the latter part of weekend afternoons in Latrobe, Pa., or Orlando, Fla., watching the current tournament unfold on TV.

He pays special attention when Woods is in contention. Woods is a six-time winner of Palmer's annual invitational event at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, and Palmer has forged a special relationship with the man who certainly would have been a rival had one been born a half-century earlier or the other a half-century later.

Yet Arnie didn't enjoy what he witnessed from his friend in the recent PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club. It wasn't that Woods failed to prevail after holding the 18-, 36- and 54-hole leads that so miffed Palmer; it was his conservative approach to the weekend rounds.

Asked weeks later whether he ever undertook such a strategy when playing with the lead, Palmer cocks his head sideways, furrows his brow and says with all sincerity, "I don't even know what conservative is."


1991: AUGUSTA NATIONAL GOLF CLUB, AUGUSTA, GA.
"Arnie was the first person I called when I qualified for the Masters in '91. … We got a practice round set up, and we played a great round of golf, and we walked off the 18th tee about 100 yards, and he kind of grabs my arm and pulls me over and stops, and says, 'Right here. Right here.' 'What, Mr. Palmer?' '1961, I had a 1-shot lead, I came over and shook somebody's hand, and he said congratulations. I never should have said thank you; I should have said it's not over.' That's when he blocked the 7-iron right into the bunker, made double and lost to Gary Player. He was still fuming about it 30 years later." -- Phil Mickelson


Asked for his thoughts on life entering a ninth decade, Palmer pauses briefly and says, "I guess being 80 is … OK."

You can tell there's part of him that doesn't like it one bit, that would rather be slamming drives and curling in birdie putts against the current crop of superstars. You also can tell there's a bigger part of him that wouldn't trade one moment of his life for anything.

Arnold once said, "Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated," and so maybe the game is a perfect metaphor for life, too. His life.

Palmer's reach has spanned generations of golfers, touching each in a special way. Take Jack Nicklaus -- "To me, Arnold Palmer means a friend," he says. "He's been a friendly competitor and a friend through the years." And Tiger Woods -- "Arnold has meant a lot to me, not just as a legendary golfer but personally, too," he proclaims. "I think we have a really solid relationship. I have always been able to talk to Arnold about golf or any other subject. He's been there to listen and provide advice when I ask for it." Palmer's generosity and benevolence have earned him the respect of nearly every professional golfer who has laced up a pair of spikes.

In looking back on Arnold Palmer's life in golf, perhaps his friend and rival Player summed it up best: "Time goes by so quickly, and you travel the world together and you play together. They say memories are the cushions of life. And we've got great memories."

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.