Arnold Palmer’s gratitude

September 26, 2016

Near the end of the 1960s, a Gallup poll designed to sound the depths of American cynicism turned up the interesting factoid that there was but one American who could still be considered an authentic “hero.” That American was Arnold Palmer.

A story — perhaps apocryphal — has a guest mentioning the results of this poll to William F. Buckley Jr. during the pundit’s weekly Firing Line TV show. Upon hearing this, Buckley is said to have paused for a second, wrinkling his brow before smiling, leaning forward and asking sweetly: “Who … is Arnold Palmer?”

For most Americans, the answer is simple. Arnold Palmer is THE golfer. He has been for the past 40 years and — even as Tiger Woods stalks the fairways, even as David Duval and Sergio Garcia have begun to emerge as the stalwarts of a new generation of robo-players, the name “Arnold Palmer” still resonates with millions who don’t care anything about golf.

At nearly 70 years old, his competitive days well behind him — his last major championship win came at the 1964 Masters, his last win on the PGA Tour in 1973 and his last Senior PGA Tour victory in 1988 — Palmer is still the most famous golfer in the world. He is still a familiar presence to most Americans. He still sells automobile tires and motor oil on TV. The last time Forbes issued its list of the 40 richest athletes, Palmer was ensconced in 12th place, with estimated 1997 earnings of $16.1 million. That year he made only $100,000 playing golf in senior tour events.

There are people who don’t even realize he is an actual person — like “Babe Ruth,” the name “Arnold Palmer” has become a code for “superlative sports figure.” For all his sporting accomplishments, Arnold Palmer — Arnie — is more of a living trademark than an aging sports hero. While almost no serious student of the game would argue that Palmer was the greatest golfer ever (Jack Nicklaus and several others compiled better records) there is no question that Palmer is the most beloved.

A documentary that aired on the cable outlet The Golf Channel in October (and is now available on videotape just in time for Father’s Day) was tellingly titled Arnold Palmer: Golf’s Heart and Soul .

No one disputed the appropriateness of the title. Indeed, even though Palmer has a financial interest in The Golf Channel, nary a critical word was uttered about the broadcast. It is difficult to think of another American cultural figure who could endure such hagiography without fear of a backlash.

In this age of cynicism — and we are at least as cynical as we were in the days of that long-ago Gallup poll — it may be that Palmer is still the only bona fide American hero.

A HERO’S LIFE

Palmer has just published his autobiography, a 420-page hardcover that was written “with” golf writer James Dodson. It’s called A Golfer’s Life (Ballantine, $26.95) and it’s pretty well done for this kind of thing. Palmer (let’s continue the useful fiction that he’s the author of the book) recounts his career, talks semicandidly about his victories and defeats and tells stories about his childhood and the celebrities he’s come to know in his years as the world’s most famous golfer.

“Most famous” is the proper qualifier for Palmer. Though he was arguably a great player — the dominant figure in his sport between the age of Ben Hogan and the ascendancy of Nicklaus — Palmer’s time at the top was relatively brief, and his resume has at least one glaring hole. There have been greater champions.

Though he won seven major championships (eight if you count the U.S. Amateur, which everyone who’s ever won one does) — the yardstick by which golf greatness is habitually measured is the PGA Championship, which he never won. That failure prevents him from being cited as one of the men who completed golf’s “grand slam.” And his record pales next to Nicklaus’ 18 titles.

Palmer may have also been the most spectacular burnout in golf’s history. His “go for it” approach took its toll on him; by the mid-1960s there was evidence that his skills — or his nerves — had eroded. Maybe he simply ran into a blond buzz saw named Jack Nicklaus. Maybe — as Nicklaus himself speculated in his book in 1997 — Arnie’s putting deteriorated after he quit smoking (at least on the course in the mid-1960s). Maybe he was too distracted by outside interests. Palmer was the first athlete to emerge as a superstar commercial spokesman; at his peak he sold everything from ketchup to a chain of dry cleaners to “foot detergent.”

In any case, the Palmer era was effectively over when Nicklaus won three out of four of the major championships in 1962. Palmer turned 33 years old that year — young for a golfer. Though he would enjoy a few more spectacular years, he could never again be said to be the dominant figure in his chosen game.

UP FROM LATROBE

But the greatest part of Palmer’s appeal was his Everyman vulnerability. His swashbuckling style was made for TV but in the real world it led to a lot more losses than victories. He played with a recklessness that was fascinating to watch.

A working-class type from Pennsylvania coal country (his father, “Deke” Palmer, the course superintendent at the Latrobe Country Club, practically built the course by himself, yet as a child Arnold and his brother and sister weren’t allowed to use the club’s swimming pool), Palmer oozed manliness. He possessed a rough-hewn handsomeness with identifiable mannerisms. He hitched up his trousers; he craned his neck to watch when he ripped a huge drive with his homemade, somewhat inelegant swing. He rammed his putts in the back of the cup or blew them five feet past. He was quick and strong and above all an athletic presence in a game that might have seemed a little too genteel for popular tastes.

While golf fans remember Palmer’s heroic charges — most notably his final round 65 which won him the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver in 1960, his style also cost him a few big tournaments. The best known of these came in 1966 at the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. With just nine holes to play, Palmer had a seven-shot lead over Billy Casper. With four holes to play, Palmer still had a five-shot lead. By the time the round was over, the two men were tied.

The next day, Casper defeated Palmer in an 18-hole playoff, the third U.S. Open playoff loss for Palmer.

In his book, Palmer discusses the collapse as honestly as one could hope — he says he started thinking about breaking Hogan’s record for the lowest winning Open score. Palmer says he forgot about his playing partner and at one point during the final round even reassured Casper — who was beginning to falter himself.

“Don’t worry, Bill,” Palmer said to Casper as they walked down the 10th fairway together. “You’ll finish second.”

ADMIRABLE CANDOR A Golfer’s Life is better than the standard sports autobiography largely because Palmer is not afraid of appearing foolish. The writing is simple, conversational with seemingly little concern for style (which means it’s quite stylish indeed). It gives us the facts, a few anecdotes and way more than we ever wanted to know about Palmer’s various aircraft. (He’s been an accomplished pilot for 40 years, and he obviously delights in flying himself around the country and in buying the latest and fastest toys).

Palmer discusses his father’s drinking — though not in the currently chic revelatory style.

“It troubled me that the man who rode me so hard about knowing the difference between right and wrong often did something — after too many shots at the fire hall — he knew was wrong,” Palmer writes, but he never hints that he might have been a victim of his father’s weaknesses.

Palmer also writes candidly about some of his bad investments and less-than-savory business partners, paying particular attention to the widely publicized litigation that surrounded his involvement in a residential development near Orlando, Fla., called Isleworth. (The project has thrived since Palmer left the deal. Tiger Woods lives at Isleworth today.)

And he recounts, with admirable spareness, the tragic death of his friend and college golf teammate Bud Worsham during their days at Wake Forest College (now University) in North Carolina. But the overwhelming virtue of A Golfer’s Life is Palmer’s unmistakable gratitude for what golf — for what America — has brought him. His story provides the antidote for those weary of the culture of entitlement that seems to have permeated professional sports. Palmer is grateful for what golf allowed him to do, and though he is candid about his remarkable business relationship with Mark McCormack — the founder of International Management Group — who had the foresight not to link Palmer’s business deals to his on-course performance, he never echoes the oft-cited opinion that his on-course burnout might have been caused by McCormack’s pressuring him to take on endorsement clients. Palmer accepts full responsibility for his life, for the failures as well as the triumphs. He was — he is — a genuine hero.


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