Arnie: Palmer, the presidents' man

By Jason CrookSeptember 10, 2014, 10:00 am

Since the dawn of politicians in the United States, there has been a constant battle among them over every decision imaginable for the greater good of the country.

One thing they can (almost) all agree on, however, is Arnold Palmer. When Palmer became the sixth athlete, and only the second golfer, to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2012 for “recognition of his service to the country in promoting excellence and good sportsmanship,” the bill passed 422–1 in the House and unanimously in the Senate.

“I’m particularly proud of anything the House and the Senate agree on,” Palmer joked at the time. But it’s no laughing matter: Palmer is a unifying figure, and one thing the men in charge of running this nation have agreed on the last 60 years or so - they all want to be friends with Arnie.

It started in 1958. Palmer, then 28, had just won his first major, a one-stroke victory at the Masters, when he got a message that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would like to play golf the next day at Augusta if he could “spare the time.”

“We played and we became friends. He was president of the United States then and we started hanging out together and I’d meet him for golf and we played some exhibitions for the Heart Fund because he was a heart patient and that was part our business,” Palmer said.

Winnie Palmer even surprised her husband by sending his plane to transport Eisenhower from Gettysburg to Latrobe for Arnie’s 37th birthday celebration.

Arnold Palmer and his relationship with presidents

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"Quite frankly, I don’t know when I’ve had a better time," Palmer told Kingdom magazine of the experience. “We had a ball. He was just so accommodating and what a wonderful man he was. We talked for hours, just sat at a table and talked and it was a lifelong friendship from then on.”

Lifelong friends and trendsetters.

Since that first encounter with Eisenhower, Palmer’s circle of golf buddies has grown into something that sounds like it came out of a fourth-grade history textbook: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, both George Bushes, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. Even John F. Kennedy, who was notoriously hesitant about being seen and photographed on a golf course for political reasons, made a tape of his golf swing in 1963 and intended to invite Palmer to the White House to critique it. First, however, Kennedy had a scheduled trip to Dallas.

An outspoken conservative Republican heavily influenced by his friendship with Eisenhower, Palmer's time spent on the course with Nixon, Ford, Reagan and both Bushes seems to make perfect sense. But Palmer’s presidential playing partners made it sound like the conversation never even included politics.

“Palmer likes to identify with good golfers and I’m sure that’s why he is my friend,” George H.W. Bush deadpanned. “He’s abided by the ‘no laughing' rule, which is a very serious rule that I invoke on everybody that plays with me, and he’s been very good about that. For example the whiffed pitching wedge, he doesn’t ever laugh about that.

“Some of these big-shots are so contemptuous of lousy golfers that they make it no fun in some of those pro-am things, but he relaxes you, no matter how bad you are, no matter how good you are. And that’s not an insignificant attribute.”

Perhaps Palmer's most perplexing presidential golf buddy, at least on paper, is Clinton. In the book “Arnie: Inside the Legend,” Palmer is quoted as saying, “If Clinton wins (this election), I won’t have anything left to will (to my daughters).” And while his political views may be the same today, you wouldn’t know it the way he and Clinton pal around the course.

“I’ve played with him and been honored by him numerous times and he’s a good guy, he’s a great guy, very intelligent and not a bad golfer,” said Palmer. “He can hit it a long way, he just doesn’t have a zip code.”

And it’s not just presidents. Arnie’s Army includes celebrities, too.  It’s no coincidence that Palmer, who gets a lot of the credit for making golf cool, was hobnobbing with some of show business' coolest customers, the “Rat Pack,” in his prime.

“I knew (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.) well, but I didn’t spend a great deal of time with them. I played golf with Martin a few times and with the others in pro-ams they were sponsoring. I enjoyed my time with them,” Palmer told

Palmer’s ability to make an impact across generational lines is best illustrated by the famous company he has kept. Over time the names have changed, but the level of recognition has stayed consistent. Eisenhower became Clinton, Sinatra became Justin Timberlake, Bob Hope became Jay Leno, and Ted Williams became Michael Jordan. LeBron James even named a shoe after him last summer, dubbing it the “LeBronald Palmer.”

And if King James, the best basketball player of his generation, paying homage to a golfer he never saw hit a competitive shot doesn’t convince you that the original King still reigns supreme, then maybe this will do the trick. The lasting image from the 2013 Arnold Palmer Invitational didn’t have anything to do with the tournament. It was an 83-year-old Palmer planting an innocent kiss on the cheek of a supermodel more than 60 years his junior, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl Kate Upton. It was actually Arnie who played a big role in her rise to superstardom, as if the world needed another reason to be indebted to Mr. Palmer.

Arnold Palmer and Kate Upton

Arnold Palmer and supermodel Kate Upton (@coribritt)

They followed their lunch at Bay Hill with a photo shoot and cover story for Golf Digest, where Palmer gave the blonde bombshell a swing lesson.

It’s this attitude that has endeared Palmer to so many for so long. Whether he’s on the course, pitching products, meeting new people, founding hospitals and television networks or inventing drinks, Arnie never settles, he is always looking for something new and he does it with a big smile. It’s the reason so many presidents wanted to be his friend and it’s the reason some think he could’ve run for office himself.

“Arnold had a great ability to look you in the eye, sign an autograph and he made you feel like you were the only person in the world that he was dealing with at that moment, which is so special. There are very people few people that,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Andy North. “Years back they were talking about Arnold running for senator and he could’ve won, he could’ve been the senator from Pennsylvania in 10 minutes. He could have been the governor of Pennsylvania and if he’d have done that he probably would have ended up being the president.”

President Palmer … has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? But again, why become president when you're already King?

Photo by Enrique Berardi/LAAC

Top-ranked amateur Niemann one back at LAAC in Chile

By Nick MentaJanuary 21, 2018, 8:44 pm

Argentina’s Jaime Lopez Rivarola leads the Latin America Amateur Championship at 5 under par following a round of 3-under 68 Saturday in Chile.

The former Georgia Bulldog is now 36 holes from what would be a return trip to Augusta National but his first Masters.

"The truth is that I crossed off on my bucket list playing Augusta [National], because I happened to play there," Rivarola said. "I've played every year with my university. But playing in the Masters is a completely different thing. I have been to the Masters, and I've watched the players play during the practice rounds. But [competing would be] a completely different thing."

He is followed on the leaderboard by the three players who competed in the playoff that decided last year’s LAAC in Panama: Joaquin Niemann (-4), Toto Gana (-4), and Alvaro Ortiz (-3).

Click here for full-field scores from the Latin America Amateur Championship

Chile’s Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who currently holds conditional status on the Tour and is poised to begin his career as a professional, unless of course he takes the title this week. After a disappointing 74 in Round 1, Niemann was 10 shots better in Round 2, rocketing up the leaderboard with a 7-under 64.

“Today, I had a completely different mentality, and that's usually what happens in my case," Niemann said. "When I shoot a bad round, the following day I have extra motivation. I realize and I feel that I have to play my best golf. The key to being a good golfer is to find those thoughts and to transfer them into good golf."

Niemann’s fellow Chilean and best friend Gana is the defending champion who missed the cut at the Masters last year and is now a freshman at Lynn University. His second-round 70 was a roller coaster, complete with six birdies, three eagles and a double.

Mexico’s Ortiz, the brother of three-time Tour winner Carlos, was 6 under for the week before three back-nine bogeys dropped him off the pace.

Two past champions, Matias Dominguez and Paul Chaplet, sit 5 over and 7 over, respectively.

The winner of the Latin America Amateur Championship earns an invite to this year’s Masters. He is also exempt into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Open sectional qualifying, and Open Championship final qualifying.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.