Sincerity Part of Palmers Magic

By Mercer BaggsMarch 19, 2006, 5:00 pm
ORLANDO, Fla. -- At first I thought it was a bit of magic. But it wasnt. It was sincerity. That was what twinkled in the eyes of Arnold Palmer and emerged from his mouth as his lips turned upwards.
 
Arnold Palmer is a lot of things. And most of all, he is sincere.
 
You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his words.
 
Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer won 62 PGA TOUR events, including seven major championships.
As he stood before the media on the brink of his annual pre-tournament press conference at the Bay Hill Invitational, Palmer looked over the gathering, smiled and said Hello.
 
He then sat down and his first official words were: Well, first of all, welcome and nice to see all of you. I can recall about 27-and-a-half years ago when this room at a press conference had about two people in it. Its nice to see what has happened over those 28 years of this golf tournament.
 
Over the last 28 years, this golf tournament has become one of the premiere events on the PGA TOUR. Its become a must-play for Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh and Ernie Els. And next season, in its 29th year of existence, it will become the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
Not a person associated with game deserves to have a tournament named after him or her more so than does Palmer. Tournaments are largely for the fans, the people. Theyre an opportunity for common folks to watch others do uncommon things with a golf club.
 
But even more so, its a chance for John Q. Golfing Public to experience an up-close encounter with the best players in the world.
 
Of course, this doesnt always happen. Not every player stops to pen his name. And even among those who do, actual interaction rarely compliments the signature.
 
Not so with Palmer. Palmer always signed. He always chatted. He always made the strange fan feel like a friend. And he was always sincere.
 
Palmer didnt just walk with kings and keep the common touch. He was the King with the common touch.
 
And he still is.
 
To this day, the 76-year-old can disarm you with a smile, pull you in with a few simple words, and make you feel like youve known him forever. Even more so, he can make you feel like hes known you forever.
 
It took some doing, some prodding by his daughter, Amy, but Palmer finally gave in to lending his name to this event, the tournament that he has hosted since it was first contested at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in 1979.
 
I suppose over the years Ive been invited to put my name on other tournaments around the country and I have resisted, he said. And I resisted here as long as I was playing or participating on the TOUR full-time. I just didnt think it would be appropriate to have my name on a golf tournament.
 
Palmer seemed to dismiss the idea in years past because, so long as he was still playing golf competitively, he didnt want to be perceived as bigger than the game. Regardless of whether or not he was in fact just that, thats never who he wanted to be ' or how he wanted to be viewed; he just always wanted to be a player in the game, a professional ' one whose job it was to compete, to win, to entertain.
 
Hes no longer that competitor, and he seems to finally have come to terms with that.
 
One press member asked him how he could resist the urge to compete next year in the first-ever Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
Palmers response: I wont have any problem at all. I can promise you that.
 
He then laughed a little, and then got a little serious.
 
For the first time in my life I have no desire to go out and play the way Ive been playing, he said.
 
Arnold Palmer
Arnie's Army still follows whenever he competes.
Palmer added that he still loves to play; he just does so now mostly at home, which is Bay Hill, in the company of a regular foursome. He hasnt even competed in a Champions Tour event this year.
 
Tournament golf is now something that I dream about, he said. Of course theres nothing Id rather do than tee it up and know that I could be a factor; that isnt likely to happen.
 
There wasnt a hint of sadness in Palmers tone as he said these words. It was just matter-of-fact. It was sincere.
 
Arnold Palmer is 46 years my senior. He won his last TOUR event two years prior to my birth. Hes not only a Hall of Fame player; hes a legend ' and even a hero to some.
 
And yet, I feel much more comfortable asking him a question than I do, say, Charles Howell III.
 
I think that says a lot about who Palmer is, how he can make you feel, how he can put you ' anyone and everyone ' at ease. Hes Arnold Palmer. Youre you. And yet, it doesnt matter.
 
As I sat in Palmers press conference Wednesday I didnt ask any questions. I just listened. I listed to him talk about the future opening of the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, named after his late wife. I listened to him talk about the importance of rough at PGA TOUR events. I listened to him talk about how he wanted to make sure that any changes in the professional game didnt adversely affect the amateur player.
 
And, what I most enjoyed, I listened to him talk about how Augusta National played in the 50s and 60s, and how todays Masters Tournament is different from the one he won four times.
 
People said that I couldnt win at Augusta. That was the popular opinion. And why was that? Well, it was because I hit the ball low ' in fact, everybody knew when I played a practice round because there were burn marks on the tee where my ball took off. And I was aware of that, he told.
 
Augusta was a golf course that really wasnt suited necessarily to my game. But the desire to win at Augusta was as great as the lack of ... maybe game to do it.
 
He went on to talk about how he learned to win at Augusta; how he should have won a lot more than just four green jackets; why todays greens at Augusta hold approach shots better than they used to; why those greens are so much faster nowadays.
 
He talked about how he used to play the seventh hole, a par-4 that has been stretched to more than 450 yards and narrowed at the point of attack off the tee.
 
I used to hit a driver off the tee and I did it on purpose. Even though the fairway was narrow, I wanted to get down where I could get to the upslope and hit the ball into a green that was unacceptable ' it wouldn't accept the shot if you were hitting from the same level. So the upslope helped make it easier and that was my goal, when I played that hole, he recounted.
 
Today, with the hole the way it is, you'll see them hitting irons off the tee to a 460-yard hole to stay back on the level so that they can get that high shot into that seventh green.
 
And I could go over every hole on the golf course almost the same way, the different approach that you have to make today to get it there.
 
I wish he had. His 10-minute-or-so press conference was more entertaining, more engaging than a months worth of golf programming.
 
He talked. He was sincere. I listened. I was charmed.
 
Maybe it was a bit of magic after all.
 
Email your thoughts to Mercer Baggs
 
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