One story, of many stories, that tells of Arnold Palmer


Let us resolve to tell just one Arnold Palmer story. If we try to do more, if we try to recount or summarize or, dare I say it, capture the essence of the impossibly wonderful life of Arnold Daniel Palmer, well, we will fail miserably. The King did not live a life that can or should be summed up. He was the son of a hardened golf pro and groundskeeper in Latrobe, Pa. He played college golf at Wake Forest. He ran away to join the coast guard.

He returned with a slashing swing and a gambler’s nerve, and he played golf in such a daring way that he made it seem thrilling on television. Palmer was so handsome and carried himself with such an air of cool (“He would show up on the screen and it was like ‘Wham!’” the great TV producer Frank Chirkinian said), that he helped take the game out of the country clubs, he made farm kids and factory kids, small town kids and city kids all dream of Augusta. He won big, and he lost big, and through it all he smiled and waved and treated people with kindness, and an army followed his every move. They named a drink after him.

But, see, all those words fall flat. None of it can describe the true grandeur of Arnold Palmer.

One story. But what should it be? Should it be a story of one of his great victories, like the 1960 U.S. Open, the greatest U.S. Open of them all? Palmer finished the third round with a double-bogey and found himself seven shots behind leader Mike Souchak. His tournament chances were so bleak that one of his best friends just left the golf course and went home.

In those days, they played 36 holes on the last day, and so Palmer went to have a bite to eat with a couple of sportswriters, Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press and Dan Jenkins of the Fort Worth Press.

“Wonder what a 65 would bring this afternoon,” Palmer mused.

“Won’t do you any good,” Drum said.

Well that ticked off Palmer even more, and he went out to the first tee in the afternoon round and unleashed one of the most famous drives in golf history – he drove the green and made birdie. He shot 65 and won the whole thing, even though he was being chased by a 47-year-old Ben Hogan and a 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus.

It’s a great story, but it tells only of victory, it misses the heartbreak of Palmer’s career, the very thing that made him so human and beloved. That was the only U.S. Open he ever won – and he could have won two or three or even four more. The stories of Palmer’s great losses have a majesty all their own. For instance, there was the 1961 Masters – Palmer needed only a par on the 18th hole to win his second consecutive Masters and third in four years. He hit his drive down the fairway, par was a cinch, and then as he remembered it he saw an old friend in the gallery. “You won it, boy!” he shouted.

“And,” Palmer would say, “my mind left my body. Just went away. And I proceeded to, short story, make 6 on the last hole and lose the Masters.”

But this obviously cannot be our one Palmer story, either.

I have a personal story, one I wrote for Palmer’s 87th birthday, a story about how kind Palmer was to me the first time I met him (and every time I saw him after that). Palmer saw a nervous young reporter with no idea what to do, and though he had undoubtedly seen a hundred nervous young reporters, a thousand, he talked to me, inspired me, gave me every sense that he would watch out for me. It was just a small bit of grace from a man who brought a tiny burst of joy and confidence to countless people.

But that is too small a story for Arnold Palmer.

There was the time that Tom Watson met Palmer, back in 1965. Watson idolized Palmer. He would have his greatest duels with Nicklaus, and he admired Nicklaus, revered him, grew to love him, but there was something different about Palmer. Arnie was Watson’s hero. Arnie was the very essence of what a golf hero could be. When Watson first shook the King’s hand before their first exhibition together, he could feel the power – Arnie was famous for crushing Coors beer cans with one hand back before those cans were made of aluminum. Palmer himself was made of steel.

Watson stepped to the first tee of that exhibition match and with all the strength and hope he had in his 15-year-old body he unleashed his first drive in the hopes of impressing the King. “I really caught it,” Watson would say many years later. He thinks the ball sailed and rolled out to almost 300 yards. Watson would never forget the way Palmer’s eyes widened just a little, as if to say: “Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be?”

And then a small smile sprung on Palmer’s face, and he walked up to the tee himself. He put out the cigarette he had been smoking. And without even a warm-up swing, he walloped his drive 20 yards past Watson.

“That was Arnie,” Watson would say. “That was my hero.”

But this story tells only of the young Palmer. And his perseverance was yet another part of his story. There is the older Arnie, who showed up in Kansas City again 40 years after that first exhibition. He came this time to Watson’s charity event. It was an amazing day – there were the five legends who had dominated golf for a quarter century, Palmer and Nicklaus, Watson and Gary Player and Lee Trevino. But the topic was Tiger Woods and how the younger golfers seemed defeated by his greatness.

“Do you wish you were 30 years younger so you could take on this Tiger Woods kid?” Watson asked Palmer. And though Palmer was well into his 70s, though it had been years since he had been competitive, you could see the fire flicker on his face, the same fire that pushed him to charge back and win seven majors and all those tournaments.

“You bet your ass I do,” Palmer said.

No, there is no one story that can do what we need it to do, no one story that can bring Arnold Palmer back to life even for a moment. He died on Sunday at age 87, and for the last 60 or so years he was golf. Nicklaus was greater. Tiger, too. Watson and Player won more major championships. But all of them would tell you that Arnold was the King. He loved the game. He loved competing. He loved winning. He loved people. More than anything, he loved being Arnold Palmer. It was the greatest life he could imagine living.

Maybe there is one story, a small one from 20 years ago in Augusta. It was just before the Masters was to begin, Palmer’s 52nd Masters, and he agreed to play 27 holes over two days with a promising young kid who wanted to pick his brain, a 20-year-old amateur by the name of, yes, Tiger Woods. A couple of days before they went out to play, another guy asked if he could join the group. His name was Jack Nicklaus.

So the three of them went out to play, this marvelous junction of time and space. Palmer was done as a competitive player – he had not made a Masters cut in a dozen years. Nicklaus was still young enough to dream; he had actually led the Masters after the first round a year earlier. And Woods was all promise and wonder. It would be a few more months before he even turned professional and a year before he altered golf with his mind-blowing performance at the 1997 Masters.

When they finished playing their practice rounds together, the media topic was, of course, Tiger. His power and poise had dazzled Palmer and Nicklaus. At the 13th hole, Woods hit a 215-yard 3-iron that left both of them gasping. At times he hit his drives so far, that Palmer would just break out laughing. “Arnold and I walked off the golf course, and we both agreed that you could take his Masters titles and my Masters titles and add them together, and this kid should win more than that.”

It took a fairly quick calculation, even for sportswriters, that since Palmer won four Masters and Nicklaus won six, they were predicting that Woods should win more than 10 green jackets.

“This kid is the most fundamentally sound golfer that I’ve ever seen at any age,” Nicklaus said.

“He’s very impressive,” Palmer said.

So why would this be an Arnold Palmer story? Well, as it turns out, the three of them had a little money on the line because, after all, what fun would it be to play without some wagering. Woods hit the most remarkable shots. Nicklaus played the smartest shots. And ... Palmer took all the money. Well, of course he did. Arnold Palmer was one of the greatest golfers who ever lived. And, every golfer will tell you, he was even better when his own money was on the line.

When it ended, someone asked Palmer how he felt taking money away from a young amateur. He smiled.

“He will make plenty,” Palmer said. “I’ve got to get mine while I can. It’s tough out there.”

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