Hanging with Arnold Palmer during API week

By Mercer BaggsMarch 25, 2014, 7:30 pm

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.


Arnold Palmer and Sam Saunders


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.

Arnold Palmer and Ace SaundersPalmer 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.


Arnold Palmer


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.

Arnold PalmerIt’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.

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What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 22, 2018, 10:37 pm

Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:

Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft

Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts

Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red

Ball: TaylorMade TP5x

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”



McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.