After 15 years of having the honor of serving as the Head Instructor at the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy at Saddlebrook Resort in Tampa, Florida, I have a few memories that serve to define The King, Mr. Palmer:
At nineteen years of age, I secured tickets to the PGA championship, and a friend and I went out to observe the greats of the game, circa 1959. As we approached the first fairway, a huge gallery approached the tee. “Who’s that?” I asked my friend. “Oh,” he replied, “that’s that new guy, Arnold Palmer, that won the Masters last spring.” I watched Palmer walk to his tee shot, and couldn’t help but be taken by his bold, confident walk, head up, observing his next shot, looking like a man on a mission. When he struck his second, a long iron to a smallish green that was a par five converted to a par four, I couldn’t believe the positive, aggressive swing that he displayed. The ball landed twelve feet from the pin. It seemed that Mr. Palmer not only hit it there, he actually willed it there.
The next year, my college golf team was headed for Colorado Springs and the NCAA championships. As the USGA Open was held the previous week at Cherry Hills in Denver, we drove there on Sunday to witness the finals. I was following one of my favorite players, Ben Hogan, who was near the lead, when news came that Arnold Palmer had lit up the front nine with a 30, continued his charge on the back nine, and was very much in contention. I arrived at eighteen just in time to see Palmer approach the green. The same purposeful walk; electricity was in the air. When he holed his putt for a 65 and what would be a victory, the crowd let out a shout heard, I am sure, as far away as Latrobe. Everyone was swept up in the heroic play of this new star. When Mr. Palmer flung his visor into the air, a thousand spirits flew high along with it. Arnie’s Army was born.
In 1971, I was playing the PGA Tour, a non – exempt “rabbit.” In Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, a 69 on Monday qualified me for the Bahamian National Championship, then the final stop on the tour. I spent Tuesday doing a hard practice, finishing the afternoon with a long putting session, then decided to play nine holes before dinner. As I was departing for the tee, Art Wall approached the green. I had played several times with Mr. Wall, one of the finest gentlemen on tour, and as I was playing well, felt cocky enough to inquire if he would care to join me. He agreed, but mentioned that he had another player who was arriving momentarily. I almost fell over when Arnold Palmer came up the path with his caddie. My thought was only to stay out of his way. However, after we had marched fifty yards down the fairway, I felt that I had known Mr. Palmer all of my life. Yes, he was The King; but he was also a regular guy who went out of his way to make me feel welcome.
In 1991, I was paired again with Mr. Palmer in the final round of the PGA Senior Tour event in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The venue was a wonderful old Donald Ross course, and while it exuded charm it lacked space, particularly around the first tee. As Mr. Palmer still drew the largest galleries, the spectators were jammed in elbow to elbow, twenty rows deep. After a futile attempt to drive a cart up to the tee, my caddie abandoned the cart and took the bag to the tent. Our third player did the same. As we walked up to join Palmer, he commented; “Well! Three players, three caddies, and no carts. Looks like we’re going to play REAL golf today.” The man definitely has an appreciation for the traditions of the game.
As luck would have it, Mr. Palmer had a hot hand. By the time we were midway in the back nine, he was six under for the round and had climbed up on the leaderboard. On the fifteenth, a long par four, a rifle shot second, headed for the pin, took a terrible bounce in the fringe and kicked dead right into a bunker. Palmer addressed the ball, started to dig his feet into the sand, stopped, dug again, and swung. The ball arched lazily out of the sand, landed softly, and rolled gently into the cup. Amid the clamor, I passed Mr. Palmer and complimented him on his birdie. A stern look crossed his face. “That was a par.” He said tersely. “The ball moved as I was addressing it.” “But I was looking right at the ball, and I didn’t see it move.” I stammered. “Well I did.” Palmer countered “Par.” And that, Mr. Palmer seemed to say, is the way the game is played.
My last round with Mr. Palmer was in a Senior Tour event in Japan. I was fortunate enough to be paired with him in the first round, but the weather was cold, windy, and drizzling a freezing rain. By the time we were done, we were both soaked and frozen. (As usual, he beat the socks off of me.) I signed autographs for a small group of fans in front of the locker room entrance, then turned around as I entered to observe Palmer engulfed in a sea of autograph seekers. These wonderful, hospitable people loved Mr. Palmer. I went inside, took a long hot shower, found my wife, and enjoyed a cup of coffee with her prior to departing for the hotel. As we walked out into the cold rain, I saw a knot of people by the locker room door. There was Palmer, still signing autographs. He never lost his gratitude for nor his desire to please the people who made up that vast army.
Head Teaching Professional
Arnold Palmer Golf Academy