50 Years Arnold Palmer Part 1

By Mercer BaggsApril 2, 2008, 4:00 pm
Editor's note: As Arnold Palmer approaches his 80th birthday Sept. 10, we reflect with some of our best Palmer stories.
 
Today there are no worries. Today there is no race.
 
Today, says Arnold Palmer, I feel pretty good.
 
Yes, today is a good day for the 78-year-old golfing icon, one to relish where lifes locomotive has taken him and not worry about where its headed.
 
Fifty years ago. Thats what Palmer is being asked to recall on this fine day. The first week in April, 1958, to be exact, back when he won his first of four green jackets, defeating Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins by one ' and a rather perturbed Ken Venturi by two.
 
For Palmer it was his fourth appearance at the Masters Tournament. By then he was an established 28-year-old professional player, a winner of eight PGA TOUR events.
 
He was driving a Cadillac at that point, not that two-door Ford hardtop, with trailer in tow, which he had been when he first showed up in 55 a bit desperate and a lot broke.
 
By then (1958) I had enough cash to afford that car, Palmer says with a smile.
 
Arnold ' handsome and strong, married and father of one little girl ' was a burgeoning superstar in the late 50s. He wasnt yet The King ' that title wasnt given to him until years later. Winning the 1958 Masters, though, helped set the foundation of his reign.
 
It got real serious when I won the Masters and the (U.S.) Open in 1960, recalls Palmer about his popularity. Thats when it got exciting.
 
Nineteen-hundred and 58 had been an exciting year for Palmer leading up to the seasons first major championship. Two weeks prior to the Masters he won in St. Petersburg, Fla. The following week he lost in a playoff to Howie Johnson at the Azalea Open Invitational. Afterwards he hopped in his fancy Cadillac and made his way from Wilmington, N.C., down to Augusta, Ga.
 
Palmer remembers well the days leading up to the start of the 22nd Masters Tournament. The winners list already included the likes of Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.
 
Thanks to his good buddy Dow Finsterwald, Palmer had a match set up with Hogan. Of course, Palmer and Hogan were on opposite teams; Palmer with Finsterwald, Hogan with 1956 Masters champion Jackie Burke.
 
Hogan and Palmer were never chummy. They displayed polar opposite personalities ' Hogan distant and cold; Palmer, 17 years his junior, receptive and warm. Says Palmer with another smile: He wasnt my kind of guy. We were, lets say, distant friends.
 
The two squared off in a 'friendly' team match that Tuesday. Having arrived just hours before, Palmer was a bit groggy, his play a bit sloppy.
 
The good news was that my partner, Dow Finsterwald, played very well and we beat Hogan and Burke for 35 bucks which made me feel pretty dag gone good, Palmer says.
 
He grins at the memory. He also remembers Hogan questioning: How the hell did Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?
 
The comment stung Palmer, who only admitted as much to his wife at the time. Fifty years later his response is: I won the 58 Masters.
 
He grins again.
 
Like many, Palmer's attraction to Augusta National was immediate, even before he actually had a chance to play it.
 
'I was in love with it before I ever got there in 1955,' Palmer says, 'I knew what it was like, and to get to Augusta was,' he pauses for reflection, 'just ... it was the best feeling you could have.'
 
Desite his fondness for the course, not many figured Palmer to be a Masters champion. While very talented and a proven winner, pundits and contrarians believed his ball flight would never lead him to be successful at Augusta.
 
There was some talk among the senior pros and some of the amateurs who were pretty good, and there was some talk about my possibly winning the Masters, Palmer recalls.
 
But it wasnt very complimentary.
 
Palmers ball trajectory was low ' I never hit my irons up in the air like Jack, he says. At Augusta its beneficial to be a high-ball hitter, to have your approach shots land softly and perfectly on those extreme putting surfaces ' like Nicklaus, who won a record 6 green jackets, or Tiger Woods, who already has four.
 
Not like Palmer ' a line-drive hitter ' who, incidentally, has four as well.
 
As the story goes, or as Palmer likes to tell it, his good friend and fellow pro George Fazio was talking to Tony Penna one afternoon. The two were watching a young Arnie hit balls on the range.
 
He (Penna) says, What, hes on tour full time? And Faz says, Yeah, and hes gonna be pretty good. Penna looked a Fazio and he said, You know, if hes a friend of yours you better tell him to get a job,'' Palmer says with a chuckle.
 
Certainly Palmer had the last laugh, throughout his career and in that first week of April, 1958.
 
Well I knew my game was in pretty good shape even though I played poorly in the practice rounds. I was hitting the ball good and I felt confident, Palmer says, adding, I didnt really have any idea that I was going to win the Masters. That is something you cant really tell yourself.
 
Palmer opened that Thursday in 2-under 70, placing him two back of Venturi. He shot 73 Friday, but made a 25-foot birdie putt to close out a third-round 68 and earn a share of the 54-hole lead with Snead at 5 under.
 
The previous year, Palmer was one back of Snead after three rounds when he closed in 76 to tie for seventh.
 
That, Palmer said at the time, wont happen again.
 
Editor's note: Part 2 can be read Thursday, Sept. 3rd, on GolfChannel.com
 
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