Palmer discusses driver, life issues

Arnold Palmer's charmed life has taken some tough twists in recent years. He battled prostate cancer, his wife died, and now he's in the middle of a controversy that has gripped the game he loves. Amid the photos and memorabilia in his Bay Hill office in January, Palmer sat reading a pile of irate and complimentary letters regarding his endorsement of a "non-conforming" club. He talked about the controversy, the hard times and things that keep him going at 71 with Sentinel sports columnist David Whitley.

Orlando Sentinel: You caused quite a stir in the golf community by endorsing the Callaway driver that the USGA ruled is illegal. Has the reaction surprised you?

Palmer: The thing that bothers me is, I'm not endorsing the club for sale. I am saying I have no problem if you want to use the club for recreational golf. I'm really sorry this happened, but the Royal & Ancient [which regulates golf outside the United States and Mexico] has not a problem with it in this world.

Q. Because you're a Callaway endorser, can you see how people might see a conflict of interest?

A. Well, certainly. But Callaway has 100 guys on their staff, so what's the difference? The fact I said you could use it for recreational golf is the coup de grace on the thing because of the status they give me and the fact I signed with Callaway. Well, I signed with Callaway to endorse a ball, not a club. And I liked the club so I said, "Hell, throw the club in there, too."

Q. Much of this Callaway ERC II controversy gets back to technological advancements that seem inevitable. Where do you draw the line on clubs doing the work golfers can't?

A. You have to keep in mind that most people who play, the percent who shoot under 80 is so minor. And the other thing people do not seem to understand is, we're losing about as many golfers as we're gaining. The other thing is, golf doesn't belong to anyone. It's the greatest game in the world. It's fun for me to see people be able to come out and hit the golf ball and enjoy themselves. Whatever the competition may be, it's still recreational.

Q. You even were criticized by people inside your own organization at The Golf Channel [Palmer is the station's chairman], including host Peter Kessler. Is it true he originally was removed from the annual interview you do?

A. They took him off, but I had him back on. If he's in trouble, he's in trouble because of himself. It's not because of me.

Q. There's another controversy you've spoken out on that's going to the Supreme Court this week, the Casey Martin case. Given all the grief you've been getting for the Callaway deal, have your views against him being allowed to ride a cart changed?

A. You know, it's sort of like everything else. Where do you stop? I'm 71 years old. I might go back on the regular tour if I could use a cart. I'm just kidding, but it opens the door for that kind of thing. I'm not anti-handicapped. My father had a clubfoot that came from infantile paralysis, so I'm pretty partial and pretty understanding of those situations.

Q. You've undergone some difficult times, with the prostate cancer and the death of your wife, Winnie, in November 1999. How have those things affected you?

A. Certainly, I miss her a lot. A lot of my strength came from her. I had the confidence in our relationship that I did. Maybe some of the things that have happened wouldn't have happened if she were still here.

Q. Not to pry, but are you dating anyone?

A. Oh, I'm dating. I started a few months ago.

Q. What is that like? You probably hadn't been on a date in 55 years.

A. Forty-five. And that date lasted one week. I met her on Tuesday and asked her to marry me on Saturday. And that was good for 45 years.

Q. What does Arnold Palmer do on a date?

A. Go to dinner, a movie. What anybody else would do, though I suppose right now I'm a little more self-conscious about it.

Q. You chose to stay out of the public eye after Payne Stewart's death. What was your relationship with him?

A. Being a flyer, I have great feeling for what happened. When Payne Stewart first started and came to Bay Hill, he spent some time in this office with me. I paid my respects in my own way.

Q. How is your health holding up?

A. It's fine. I'm working out every day. I do the treadmill and ab flex, trying to get my beer-drinking habits out of the way. [He grabs his belly and laughs.]

Q. Are you in awe of Tiger Woods' accomplishments like everybody else, or did you see this coming?

A. I saw it coming in '97 at the Masters, when he displayed some pretty brilliant golf. And I think we'll see a lot more. He is very strong and very dedicated, and he's handling it very well.

Q. Tiger Woods now vs. Arnold Palmer of 1960 -- who wins?

A. Who knows? It's hard to say, but it would have been fun.

Q. In April, Tiger will go for his fourth consecutive major title at The Masters. You essentially coined the term "Grand Slam" after winning the first two majors in 1960. Should winning any four in a row count as a Grand Slam?

A. I think it has to be in the same year, definitely. I mean, what the hell, it's a great accomplishment if you win four in a row and they're majors. But, I think the ticker tapes come when you win four in one year, and that was the thinking when I thought it up.

Q. Speaking of hype, the Senior Tour could probably use a shot of it these days.

A. The Senior Tour is doing very well, but there's no question they need a little boost now and then. And most of the time, they get it. I suppose part of the problem is there are some guys who came along who were club pros and not high up on the "noticeable" list. And they play very well. It will stay that way until someone comes along like, well, Ben Crenshaw could be one, or Tom Kite, somebody on that level.

Q. Any thoughts on the election? As a Floridian, did your vote count?

A. I couldn't imagine there would be such a problem with the vote count. It's so simple, but obviously there was a problem. Since the Bushes are personal friends of mine, I was involved a little bit, if in no other way emotionally. I absenteed in Pennsylvania. Gov. Tom Ridge is a good friend of mine, but he [Bush] lost that state. If Ridge had been on the ballot [as vice president], he wouldn't have lost it.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to talk about?

A. Something very important to me is getting the golf world to get on with this thing -- bringing the USGA and Royal & Ancient together and having a set of rules that will work for the pros and the recreational golfer. The game has been so good to me, and it hurts to see this friction going on between the people that play the game and the organizations. I've always played by the rules, and I find it difficult to think we're in a situation like this.

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