ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s 9:59. And 43 seconds. Arnold Palmer has a 10 a.m. ET news conference Wednesday of his eponymous tournament and he’s not a minute late.
Punctuality is important to Mr. Palmer, particularly this week. He’s hosting the Arnold Palmer Invitational and his obligations are many. Media, fans, sponsors – everyone wants a piece of his time.
His daily schedule is finely detailed and impossibly full. Each day begins with breakfast, usually corporate, and ends with a dinner or party. Under sun, moon and stars, the 84-year-old is constantly in motion this week at Bay Hill Club & Lodge.
It’s 65 degrees this Wednesday morning. The sun is intensifying but can’t quite penetrate the oak trees shading the makeshift media center tents. Palmer is chauffeured by tournament director Scott Wellington to the interview room, where modern topics are tinged with nostalgia.
The crowd exceeds 80. There’s Kit, his wife, and Amy Saunders, his daughter. His right-hand men are present, as are major media outlets and local news affiliates. And one chucklehead wearing Pabst Blue Ribbon pants. People are using smart phones and iPads to record the moment.
Palmer’s sharp. He recalls specific incidents from 60 years ago, encounters with President Eisenhower and how he built muscles by using a push lawnmower with no engine. It’s great stuff, a wonderful reprieve from the modern presser.
After 31 minutes, it’s over. But it’s not over.
A couple of journalists stop Mr. Palmer to chat. Photographers rapidly click buttons, turning motion into still images.
Palmer walks onto the tennis courts that house media grounds this week, his black loafers scratching against the clay, and is guided to secondary interview No. 1. The interviewer, recording for radio, asks a couple too many questions, but Palmer is a pro. He knows how to end a conversation. After the last question, Palmer smiles, pats him on the shoulder and says, “Thank you for your time.”
Secondary interview No. 2 takes place with a national outlet, No. 3 with a local news station. No. 4 is with a Bloomberg reporter about the city of Augusta, Ga. No. 5 is with a radio host regarding a personal encounter. He poses for two photographs and accepts praise from a man whose kid was born prematurely at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.
The final interview is with Peter Jacobsen. He asks Palmer to look into the camera and say, “Hey, fellas, what about me?” Palmer does it. Twice. He then asks, “Why am I doing this?” Palmer’s confused, and rightfully so. Jacobsen never fully explains that this is a bit for Jake’s Takes regarding the top players in the world. Palmer trusts the source and performs to perfection.
It’s 10:56 and Palmer is done, again, with the media. He hops back into his cart and heads to the range to watch grandson Sam Saunders practice.
Saunders is in his grandfather’s tournament on a sponsor’s exemption for the fifth time. He’s now a legit pro, competing on the Web.com Tour and trying to earn his PGA Tour card. He’s third from the end on the far, right side of the range.
Palmer watches intently as Sam hits irons and driver with a noticeable fade. The elder makes a few motions with his hands and lower body to the younger. Palmer stares at the ball through impact. He walks over, grabs Sam firmly by his right arm and whispers something into his ear.
“Sam, you got it, baby!” he says as he distances himself. Sam goes back to hitting his driver. There is much less bend in his trajectory.
“He was just helping me with what we’ve been working on,” Saunders later says. And what is that? “A family trade secret,” he responds with a genetic grin. “I spent some time with him recently in Pennsylvania. I was struggling, didn’t know if I wanted to keep playing. I’m far from that now. He’s been very encouraging. I get what he was saying. I get it now.
“It’s a matter of maturity. Experience. Understanding more about my swing and what it takes to be a professional golfer. I love working with him and he loves working with me.”
Sam has learned more from his grandfather than just golf. He’s learned people skills. He looks you in the eye when he talks. He’s gracious. Shakes your hand when the conversation is over. Pats you on the shoulder.
Palmer isn’t just a supportive grandfather; he’s a great-grandfather, in the literal sense. He holds Sam’s 3-month-old son, Ace, while on the range. He also signs an autograph and poses for a picture.
Chad Campbell, who won this event in 2004, stops by to talk. He takes his hat off out of respect. Mr. Palmer is big on respect and tradition. A sign in front of the Bay Hill clubhouse restaurant reads “Gentlemen, No Hats in The Clubhouse, Please.” It is not a request.
As Palmer and Campbell chat, the couple who wanted a photograph returns. The lady, without hesitation or semblance of courtesy, interrupts the two and requests a second snapshot. “I didn’t hold the button down long enough,” she says. Palmer’s not sure what she’s talking about but he obliges, because he’s Arnie.
ON THE COURSE WITH PALMER
It’s 2:07 Thursday afternoon and Arnold Palmer sits in a cart on the left side of the 10th green, waiting for Sam to hit his approach shot into his first green of the first round, which he soon does, 25 feet left of the pin. Palmer gives a thumbs-up to the lone patron in proximity.
There are lots of thumbs-ups on this pristine, 82-degree day. Palmer is accompanied by his wife and three officers from the Orange County sheriff’s department. One rides on the back of the golf cart, two more follow on bikes. Palmer drives, at times with one hand on the wheel and another on Kit’s shoulder, like he’s starring in “American Graffiti.”
The officers are there to help ensure Palmer can enjoy watching his grandson unimpeded. They deny all autograph seekers, large and small. It must be done. Palmer wouldn’t get a moment’s peace without their presence. Pictures are still taken from a distance and the sight of a legend seems to suffice many.
There are lots of familiar faces on this back-nine trek. Palmer stops to chat with Tour officials and old friends. He jokes around with his assigned patrol. And everyone – fans, marshals, volunteers – gets a thumbs-up.
Palmer, wearing gray slacks and a short-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt with a silhouette of his swing embroidered on the left chest, is crisscrossing holes. He stops in a section between the par-4 11th fairway and par-3 14th tee. The group of Stuart Appleby, Boo Weekley and Stewart Cink is playing the latter. Appleby hits last. As soon as he makes contact, with only the sound of the club on which to go, Palmer says, “That wasn’t good.” He was right. Appleby's ball landed in the front-left bunker, 81 feet from the hole.
The crew continues to forge ahead and eventually settles adjacent the 13th green. During the respite, I engage Mr. Palmer on his grandson and what the two worked on late last year. “Oh, just working on the parts of his game he needs to improve (i.e., family trade secrets). Certainly, we worked on improving his confidence. That’s a very important part of the process,” Palmer says. “He’s very close to putting it altogether and getting where he needs to be. He just needs to see a few putts go in.”
On cue, Sam makes a 13-footer for birdie, his first of the day.
During our brief exchange, I asked Mr. Palmer to speak on his favorite part of being a tournament host. “Oh, I love every part of it,” he says. “The purpose. The goals. The benefit to the hospitals. The golf. The fans. Everything about this week is special.”
The hospitals he references are the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the aforementioned Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. They are the chief charitable beneficiaries of this event.
I’ve been at Golf Channel since 1996. That’s not a lot of time in Dan Jenkins years, but it represents 46 percent of my life. After all those years I finally had Mr. Palmer in a semi-personal setting. I didn’t ask for an autograph or declare myself a loyal employee. I thanked him.
I thanked him for his hospitals. I told him of my daughters being born 10 weeks prematurely and spending five weeks in the Winnie Palmer NICU. I told him of how they are almost 6 years old now and healthy as can be.
He gave me two big thumbs-up and with that Arnie smile proudly said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
AN AUDIENCE WITH ARNIE
It’s 9:23 Friday morning. Arnold Palmer, fresh off a breakfast with folks from MasterCard, the tournament’s presenting sponsor, steps into his office and has a special guest waiting for him.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning arrived a few minutes before Palmer and said hello to his wife, Kit. “We’ve met before,” she says. “Yes, at the White House,” Manning replies.
The sporting icons, bound by Hall of Fame careers and corporate sponsorship, shake hands and head into Palmer’s office proper. It’s a private conversation, but the doors aren’t closed. They discuss golf, football and family for 20 minutes.
“It’s always great to visit with Mr. Palmer. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet him on a couple of occasions,” Manning says.
“He’s had an impact on a lot of athletes. He was a true sportsman. Very competitive on the course, but impactful with fans. He took time with them. Fans could get to close to him. He took time to sign autographs. My dad learned a lot from him and passed that on to (brother) Eli and myself.”
Palmer’s office is located on the second floor of the Bay Hill clubhouse, just above the players’ locker room. It houses the individual offices of Arnold Palmer Enterprises and the Arnold Palmer Invitational tournament staff, about 12 people total.
It’s modest, understated. Some Palmer memorabilia and a small refrigerator that stores Arnold Palmer iced tea, bottled water and cheese spread. No major trophies or green jackets. It’s not a shrine, rather a place of business.
Manning emerges from behind unclosed doors, signs a few artifacts, thanks everyone for their hospitality and hops into his courtesy car. He, too, is a busy man.
It’s 12:01 Friday afternoon. Palmer arrives with his legion at the MasterCard chalet off the 17th green. He’s there for some autographs and photos with fortunate card holders.
He makes his way, with a little assistance, up the stairs and sits down at a table in the hospitality area. The chosen few are in line, waiting for a few indelible seconds with Arnold Palmer.
Everyone gets a signed hat. They also get a smile. A handshake. A look in the eyes that offers acknowledgement and ensures a personal experience. Some of the women go in for a hug.
“This is going to be our Christmas card,” one couple tells Palmer. “You have no idea how much this means to my husband,” one woman offers.
Thirty-plus photo ops with individuals and couples take place. Most have personal memorabilia – flags, tournament guides, Golf Digests with Palmer and Kate Upton on the cover – they want him to sign, which, of course, he obliges, because he’s Arnie.
“He is so down to earth,” says Bill Davis of South Bend, Ind., who has a sister who lives at Bay Hill. “I’ve met him before, but it’s always a treat. He is so gentlemanly and considerate. Some of the newer guys out here aren’t bad, but there’s nobody like him.”
Jay Potter of Toledo, Ohio came down for the tournament. He had never before met Palmer.
“Awesome experience,” Potter says. “And he’ll personalize the autograph. Some of these guys, they won’t do that. And it’s neat. You can actually read his signature. You gotta respect the way he does things.”
After a half-hour, all autographs have been meticulously signed, every hand has been shook and a room full of people has their Arnie story.
“You know,” says Mrs. Palmer, “he handles it all so well. He just keeps on going. That’s the key. He never stops.”
Mr. Palmer is escorted down the stairs and into his golf cart. He’s got his wife, a pair of helping hands and three police escorts. He turns right down Bay Hill Blvd. and motors off to the next scheduled appointment. After all, it’s only 12:35.