Commentary

Spending the day with Arnold Palmer

Originally Published: August 26, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

8:35 a.m. ET: Hi. I'm Jason Sobel and you may know me from such live blogs as all four major championships and Tiger Woods' return from knee surgery.

What did each of those occasions have in common? If you answered, "They're all golf tournaments," you clearly haven't overanalyzed the question. And you're correct.

This version of the blog is a little different, though. OK, it's a lot different.

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Jason Sobel/ESPN.comArnold Palmer spent some time in the ESPN cafeteria on Wednesday.

There is no competition taking place today. No awe-inspiring shots or unfortunate putts. There's no trophy ceremony taking place when it's finished.

Instead, I will be shadowing the legendary Arnold Palmer as he visits ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., as he grants some TV and radio interviews, speaks at a luncheon and shoots a "This is 'SportsCenter'" commercial.

I'm currently en route to the airport, where Palmer is scheduled to land shortly -- not sure whether he's flying his own plane today, but will find out soon -- and from there, I'll update the scene throughout the day. Either this blog will provide some fascinating insight into a worldwide icon ... or I'll just be writing about hanging out with a guy in an office building all day. Uh, let's hope it's the first one.

So join me in Arnie's Army, as we learn more about the man throughout the day. You may now swing away ...


8:53 a.m. ET: Has anyone seen a plane with the initials "AP" in the tail number?

This just in: Arnold Palmer will not be flying commercial today.

Still waiting for his plane to touch down. Should be any minute now ...


9:04 a.m. ET: The Citation 10 has pulled onto the tarmac and Arnold Palmer is indeed in the pilot's seat.

"I always fly," he just told me as he disembarked the plane.

On a personal note, I haven't witnessed too many things in my career cooler than witnessing Palmer pull in with his plane, then watching that famous figure walk down the steps.

Palmer has been flying since 1956 and has logged more than 19,000 total hours.

"I like my airplane," he says. "It's as much a part of me as anything but my wife and kids."

His flight from Latrobe, Pa., this morning took 55 minutes and Palmer reported that it went as smoothly as possible.


9:18 a.m. ET: We're now in the car, zipping down the highway en route to the Bristol campus.

Arnold on flying into Connecticut: "This is my old stomping ground."

Even before he started playing the Hartford-based PGA Tour event, Palmer was in the Coast Guard and would spend his weekends at school in the town of Groton.

He just told a great anecdote from back in the day.

"I used to date a girl from around here," he said, "then after we broke up, she became a nun!"


9:32 a.m. ET: Just had an interesting conversation with Palmer about the recent PGA Championship.

While he said that it would have been beneficial for his own Arnold Palmer Invitational to have its reigning champion, Tiger Woods, win the tournament, he also sees a huge benefit in having Y.E. Yang as the newest major winner. Palmer has a lot of business in Asia and believes Yang's victory will help boost the game in that part of the world.

Speaking of Yang's 3-iron rescue club shot on the final hole at Hazeltine, he said, "That was one of the best shots I've seen recently at a major championship."

As for Tiger, Arnie knew he didn't have his best stuff on Sunday.

"Tiger's shot-making was ... less than Tiger," he said.

Palmer didn't know about Woods' conservative approach on the weekend, but when I told him, he wasn't a fan.

"No, I don't like that," he said. "I think he's too good to be conservative. If you have the ability like he does, why be conservative? And obviously it didn't work out."

I asked him whether he ever took such a strategy when playing with a lead.

He gave me a little crooked smile and said, "I don't know what conservative is."

I can go home now. Not getting a better quote than that for the rest of the day.


9:58 a.m. ET: Just pulled in through the front gates of ESPN headquarters and Arnold seems very impressed by the sprawling campus.

He's also a big fan of at least one part of our programming.

"My wife and I have been watching the Little League World Series," he said. "We love it. Just great stuff on television."


[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Jason Sobel/ESPN.comArnold Palmer is at ESPN today doing, among other things, a commercial for the "This is 'SportsCenter'" ad campaign.

10:04 a.m. ET: We're now in Building 2 here at ESPN -- one of more than a dozen buildings on campus -- former newsroom for "SportsCenter", ESPNEWS and other studio shows.

Today it's filled with a bustling staff of producers, makeup artists, wardrobe people and so many others. Arnie seems right at home.

In fact, he's even offered up his services in another way.

"Hey, we might have a baby here today," he says to one very pregnant employee. "If you need any help, let me know."

Arnold Palmer. Golfer. Course designer. Tournament host. Businessman. Pilot. OB/GYN?

10:16 a.m. ET: Might have a little breaking news here.

Palmer's Bay Hill course in Orlando -- host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, of course -- is currently undergoing renovations.

All of the greens are being redone, as are the bunkers, which will now each be visible. He's fixed the drainage on Nos. 3 and 6. And some of the par-3s will be lengthened.

The renovations were scheduled to be completed on Oct. 1, but they're ahead of schedule. Arnold will play the first round there on Sept. 4.

Perhaps the biggest news, though, is that after a few years as a par-70, the course will play as a par-72 for next year's event.

"I guess the trend now is that people want to see more birdies," he told me.

When I asked if it really matters whether a player shoots 8-under-par on a par-70 course or 16-under on a par-72, he shakes his head. "Nope," he says. "Not one bit."


10:39 a.m. ET: We've just moved to the ESPN cafeteria, where today's "This is 'SportsCenter'" commercial shoot will take place.

I can't give away the entire plotline, but needless to say, Arnold Palmer may just order his favorite beverage.

Just a few minutes ago he told the story of how the Arnold Palmer came into existence.

"I used to do it in my kitchen at home," he said. "I used to get tired of drinking iced tea, so I'd ask my wife if we had some lemonade and I would just dump it right in there."

For years, this became his preferred drink at home, finally reaching an exact science to the breakdown -- three parts iced tea, one part lemonade.

One summer Palmer was in Palm Springs working on a course design -- "You don't go to Palm Springs in the summer unless you're building a golf course," he says -- and when he retreated to the clubhouse, he ordered his homemade concoction from the waitress.

It wasn't long before it caught on.

"The lady sitting at the table next to me looked over and said, 'I want a Palmer, too,'" he said. "Well, then it spread through the desert. And now everybody just calls it a Palmer."

It's no longer just a personal favorite, though. Palmer has patented the drink and it's now available through AriZona Beverages in different sizes and flavors (with green tea, diet, etc.) And Arnie reports that sales are soaring, with an expected 110 percent growth over the past six months.

And no, when he orders one, he doesn't ask for a "Me." I asked him and he told me, "I just tell 'em I want a Palmer."


10:55 a.m. ET: ESPN analyst and three-time Super Bowl champion Mark Schlereth just walked through the cafeteria, sidled up to Stuart Scott, pointed to Palmer and said with a wry smile: "Only one guy in here has more titles than me."

Good line.


11:02 a.m. ET: They are now shooting the commercial, a 15-second spot featuring Palmer and "SportsCenter" anchors Scott Van Pelt and Stuart Scott.

Arnie could win a Best Actor award without even saying a word. He'll have about 10 seconds of face time, followed by a three-word response from Van Pelt.

It's pretty entertaining and Palmer is a pro. Then again, he's just doing something he's been doing in his kitchen for years. Have I given away too much information yet?


11:08 a.m. ET: There have been about 10 takes of the commercial shot so far and if Arnold has been anything less than perfect in any of 'em, I haven't noticed. He's clearly comfortable in front of the camera.

Make that off-camera, too.

Any request for a photo or autograph has been granted with a smile and a conversation. Palmer seems more than willing to speak for a few minutes with anyone who wants to speak with him.

It's clear why he was not only popular as an active player, but in his retirement as well. That charisma he displayed on the course apparently carries over to every part of his life.


11:24 a.m. ET: With all of the athletes and celebs (and mascots) who have come to ESPN over the years to shoot "This is 'SportsCenter'" commercials, most employees aren't too surprised when they run into a famous figure in the hallways around here.

Even so, as we get closer to lunchtime, it's pretty funny to watch people walk into the cafeteria and proclaim, "Hey, it's Arnold Palmer!" before quickly silencing themselves when they realize a commercial is being shot.


11:27 a.m. ET: They're still shooting more takes. In between a few, Scott Van Pelt just walked over to me, shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

I think that's anchor-speak for, "Guess I've gotta write my Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech pretty soon."


11:32 a.m. ET: There's a real caddie here at the shoot today. Well, a fake caddie, actually. You can tell because he has the word "CADDIE" written on his hat. Real caddies don't do that.

He is, however, lugging a real golf bag, as Arnie brought his on the flight from Latrobe.

The Callaway bag includes a driver, 3-wood, 5-wood, three hybrids, five irons, two wedges and what appears to be the same Odyssey two-ball putter that is available in stores, though likely made to Palmer's specifications.


11:39 a.m. ET: Take 20: Arnie's still killin' it.

If it wasn't for lighting and angles and other things I don't really know too much about, I think they would have been done about 19 takes ago.


11:46 a.m. ET: Take 22 is the winner.

The final take is followed by a round of applause for Palmer, who gives a little wave as if he made a 12-foot birdie on the 18th hole.

Even though this is a room of employees, producers, cameramen and others, they're all part of Arnie's Army, too.


11:53 a.m. ET: If the commercial shoot was like a final-round 65, then the post-commercial interview is akin to meeting with reporters after the round.

He's retelling the story about how the Arnold Palmer drink came into existence, complete with the woman at the table next to him in Palm Springs.

He's also now demonstrating for the camera exactly how he makes one of his patented drinks. As he said earlier, "75 percent tea, 25 percent lemonade."

Asked if he thinks the drink will leave a longer legacy than himself, Palmer says, "Well, I hope so!"


12:02 p.m. ET: Me: "Well, that wasn't too bad, huh?"

Arnie: "Piece of cake."


12:05 p.m. ET: Commercial shoot is over. Ended early, so we're now just sitting around on the outside patio next to the cafeteria.

Yup, just hangin' in the sunshine, chatting with Arnie.

Commence your jealous e-mails in 3... 2 ... 1 ...


12:10 p.m. ET: Asked the last time he flew commercial, Arnold says it was five years ago when he flew from Los Angeles to Sydney and back.

Asked to name the farthest flight he's piloted and he says, "Around the world!"

That was in 1976, as part of the country's 200th anniversary.

"I got halfway across the Atlantic and ran out of fuel," he said. "I was scheduled to go to Paris, but was forced to land in Wales."


[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Jason Sobel for ESPN.comDuring his time on the ESPN campus Wednesday, Arnold Palmer took some time out to hit a few chip shots outside the cafeteria.

12:15 p.m. ET: Coolest part of the day so far -- well, rivaling Arnie walking off the plane, at least.

Some of the producers here asked Palmer if he would chip a few golf balls on the outdoor demo football field here on campus. The catch? They wanted him to chip a ball into a glass filled with an Arnold Palmer drink.

Arnie was a bit skeptical at first. He said his golf game wasn't quite up for such a challenge. "There are a lot of windows around here, you know," he said with a smile.

After a few minutes, he was coerced into chipping a few balls from about 15 feet from the cup.

First one missed by about a foot. Third one was close, too. Same for the fifth.

And on the seventh attempt ... SPLASH!

Right into the bottom of the cup to another round of applause.

That. Was. Awesome.


12:25 p.m. ET: Bad news, golf fans.

Just got a closer look at Arnie's golf bag. My earlier report was erroneous. I missed the 7-wood, which means he is actually carrying 15 clubs.

Unfortunately, that means his earlier chip-in should have come with a two-stroke penalty. He signed for an incorrect scorecard and has now been disqualified for the day.

I think we'll let him stick around here for the rest of the afternoon anyway.


12:42 p.m. ET: We're now in a luncheon with Arnold Palmer, at which I just explained to a group of ESPN executives that just because I'm banging away on my PDA doesn't mean I'm busy texting my buddies or anything.

Good food being served for lunch -- I believe Arnie went with the salmon -- but it's more notable to report what everyone is drinking.

Of the 22 people currently in the room, nearly everyone went with -- what else? -- an Arnold Palmer.

Three parts iced tea, one part lemonade. Perfect.


1:04 p.m. ET: First e-mail of the day from Bo in Philadelphia:

The post from 12:15 ending in "Awesome"? Made me cry. I'm just so happy for you to have this experience. It is a lovely day to spend with a hero whose feet are NOT made of clay.

This isn't the first time that I've found Arnold Palmer transcends generations, genders, cultures and, yes, even golf fans. Seriously. Ask someone who's never watched a PGA Tour event about Palmer and they'll instantly know of whom you're speaking, even if the initial response is, "You mean the guy who invented the iced tea and lemonade drink?"

I can't say there's no one who doesn't like Arnold Palmer. There may be. I just haven't met that person yet.


1:34 p.m. ET: This Palmer guy is pretty good.

He's currently telling stories during this luncheon about all sorts of subjects from his life in golf.

These are queries that he's answered thousands of times over the years and yet he tells each one as if it's the first time and the questioner is the only other person in the room.

Arnie is easily spending 10-15 minutes on each response and everyone in the room is hanging on every single word.

If no one ends this meeting, we may still be going at 10 p.m. because I don't think anyone will stop asking the questions and he won't stop giving terrific, thoughtful answers.


1:44 p.m. ET: It's not just the people in this room or golf fans worldwide who understand the allure of Arnold Palmer.

The world's best pros get it, too.

Earlier this year, three-time major champion Padraig Harrington was asked about Arnie's popularity.

"I was in a restaurant the other night and somebody ordered an Arnold Palmer," he said. "That says it all that you can go into a random restaurant and order a drink named after a professional golfer. Even Tiger hasn't got there yet!"


1:56 p.m. ET: Luncheon is over and we just made our way through the ESPN hallways to a basement production room.

Arnold is now being interviewed by a producer for our studio programming. The topics range from the Masters to the U.S. Open to, well, some other surprises.

This won't be anything that will run today, but will be used within our coverage over the next year and beyond.

When you see Palmer looking into the camera speaking about Augusta National next April, you can tell your buddies that the interview was shot on Aug. 26 of the prior year in Bristol, Conn.


2:06 p.m. ET: More love for Arnie, from Anthony in New Jersey:

"Arnold is absolutely the classiest athlete I have ever met. I have had the opportunity to meet him several times and he always has a warm smile and makes you feel that you have known him for years. Arnold has probably signed more autographs than any athlete of all time and even though he knows some of his signatures will go for sale, he still signs as many as he can. One of the greatest. Happy early 80th birthday, Mr. Palmer."

I've received dozens of e-mails echoing these sentiments today. And absolutely none that were negative.


2:10 p.m. ET: OK, I'll give you a hint.

Let's just say you can expect to see Arnie making a cameo appearance on our college football coverage at some point.

And he just may take on "Dr. Lou" Holtz during one of his special segments.

Stay tuned ...


2:24 p.m. ET: We're now inside the studios of "The Scott Van Pelt Show" on ESPN Radio, where Ryen Russillo is hosting the program today.

About two minutes until we come back from break and Ryen is just prepping Arnie with a few topics that he'll hit upon.

Palmer give him a quick wave, as if to say, "Whatever you've got, I've heard it before."


2:31 p.m. ET: First question right off the bat, Ryen asks Arnie whether it's true whether he shot 70 as a 7-year-old.

Either too modest to discuss or not wanting to dissolve the myth, Palmer neither confirms nor denies.

He does, however, say that it didn't happen for nine holes or at a putt-putt course.

Hard to believe that round of golf would have taken place back in 1936 in Latrobe, Pa.


2:37 p.m. ET: Another question from Ryen: In your prime, would you beat Tiger Woods?

Palmer proffers a one-word answer: "Yes!"

Prodded, he elaborates on that sentiment.

"I don't know that I could," he says, "but that is a challenge and I enjoy challenges."


2:42 p.m. ET: We've now left the ESPN Radio department and have walked two buildings over to the "SportsCenter" studios.

Arnie is preparing for his "SC" debut -- well, his in-studio debut, at least -- as he'll sit down with Robert Flores live on the show in just a few minutes.

This will be his last interview of the day ... until I badger him for a future ESPN.com podcast in the car as we head back to the airport.


[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer on the SportsCenter set
Jason Sobel/ESPN.comArnold Palmer talks with "SportsCenter" anchor Chris McKendry before the seven-time major champion gets interviewed Wednesday.

2:52 p.m. ET: Arnold Palmer is now live in the "SportsCenter" studio for the first time in his life.

Robert Flores asks about his greatest moment in golf.

"Well," the seven-time major winner says, "I could start with seven and go from there."

That's the quick answer. When he has 10 minutes to answer, though, I still think he goes with the U.S. Amateur over any of those majors.

2:57 p.m. ET: Arnie will throw out the first pitch at PNC Park on Sept. 8 and has actually been working on his arm.

Flores asked him if he remains a fan of the Pittsburgh teams.

"The Penguins were great and then I go to the Steelers," he said. "That means I skipped one of those teams. No, I root for the Pirates, too."

Don't call Palmer a fair-weather fan.

2:59 p.m. ET: Arnold Palmer just ducked into a men's room, which wouldn't be very noteworthy except for the fact that University of Connecticut men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun was in the same bathroom.

And no, I didn't follow him in there. I'm shadowing the guy, but not THAT closely.


3:06 p.m. ET: In the car with The King, about to head to the airport.

Get that plane fueled up. The pilot is on his way.


[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
Jason Sobel for ESPN.comAfter spending Wednesday at ESPN, Arnold Palmer climbs aboard his plane, headed to Latrobe, Pa. Not too shabby for a soon-to-be 80-year-old golf legend.

3:33 p.m. ET: Just shot a 12-minute podcast with Arnie as we rode to the airport.

Among the topics we discussed -- and the one about which he was most animated -- was the future of golf and what measures need to be taken in order to keep the game from getting too uninteresting on the professional level.

Palmer is a staunch supporter of a scaled-back golf ball for the pros, an idea that has been bandied about for years, but one which he doesn't think will come to fruition anytime soon.

He believes that this is necessary because players continue to get stronger and technology continues to help them hit it farther, but the great golf courses can't be expanded any more.

It may sound like an "old school" rant from a player of a former generation, but it's one that has been seconded by many of those within the game for more than a decade -- or ever since Tiger Woods started bombing and gouging his way to major championships.

Consider Arnie on the list of those who would like to see this happen, though again, he doesn't believe it will.


4 p.m. ET: We have arrived at the airport, the plane is on the tarmac and The King is ready to take the controls and head back home to Latrobe.

Fun day. Great day. Awesome day.

If you ever have the chance to spend seven hours with Arnold Palmer, I highly recommend it.

What a treat to be able to hang with a legend and listen to his stories. Hope you enjoyed the insight into Palmer's time at ESPN. Thanks for joining Arnie's Army with me for the day.

That will do it for this edition of the live blog. Until next time, hit 'em straight ...

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.