I guess everything will be all right as long as Arnold Palmer is playing golf. That way, we’ll never get old. It’s always 1964 or so. Things were better.
Look! Mickey Mantle isn’t hitting curveballs into the seats anymore. Willie Mays isn’t hauling down three-base hits in center field. Rod Laver isn’t blasting anybody off Centre Court at Wimbledon.
But Arnold is still out there, with his shirt hanging out, a glove peeking from his back pocket as he hunches over a putt with that peculiar knock-kneed stance, face contorted with effort, concentration in every line. He still comes on TV wincing in dismay and rolling his eyes heavenward as a 35-foot putt fails to drop. He still has that Army out there, trampling down small trees, spilling the beer out of cans and imploring, “Go for it, Arnie!”
Oh, maybe the hair’s a little gray, the feet probably hurt, the back aches. He doesn’t buzz the fairways in his private jet anymore.
But he still remains the most exciting player ever to take up the game. America has had a 30-year love affair with him.
No one knows exactly what it was about Palmer. He had the kind of chemistry some movie stars have. He lit up the screen. There was no higher drama in any sport than Arnold Palmer on the spoor of first money in a major.
I’ll never forget my first encounter with the man who was to symbolize golf for his generation. It was at a tournament in Tijuana, of all places. I was covering it for a magazine. I got separated from my wife because I was following a golfer named J.C. Goosie (I wanted to see if there was such a person).
That night, she came to me, all enthusiastic.
“I have just been following the most exciting player I’ve ever seen,” she said. “He makes everybody else look like malted milk. His name is Palmer.”
“Oh, yeah,” I told her. “I know. Big shock of jet-black hair. Kind of short. compact swing. A North Carolinian.”
I was thinking of tour veteran Johnny Palmer, who was a second-echelon pro in the ratings, but the more famous Palmer on the tour at that time. My wife frowned.
“No,” she said. “That doesn’t sound like him. This guy plays like something they just let out of a cage. This guy doesn’t tiptoe. He charges.”
It was the first time I had heard that word applied to Palmer, although it was to be used many times in the years to come. I went out to see this wonder who could attract the attention of even non-fans.
I was hooked, too. Palmer on a golf course was Jack Dempsey with his man on the ropes, Henry Aaron with a three-and-two fastball, Laver at set point, Joe Montana with a minute to play, A.J. Foyt with a lap to go and a car to catch.
He never hit a safe shot. He tried to make 2 on every hole. Sometimes, he made 12. That was Palmer. They loved him for it.
No one ever quite commanded the rapport with a gallery Palmer did. Players hated to play with him--or in front of him or in back of him. The audience was Palmer’s and they were legion.
Part of it was, he swung like they did. Palmer went after the ball like a guy beating a carpet. It wasn’t pretty but it was effective. He won 62 tournaments but always managed to look like a refugee from the truck drivers’ flight at the local municipal.
He was the greatest long putter who ever lived. He didn’t lag them. He never finished up on the same side of the hole as he started. Palmer’s putts were either in--or five feet past. He attacked the game of golf like a cop busting a crap game.
He ran down so many 40-foot putts in one tournament that, when he came up unaccountably close, within three feet, on one hole and took out his putter, his playing partner, Dave Marr, remarked wryly, “You’ve got too much club, Arnold.”
He hasn’t won a tour tournament in 18 years. He hasn’t won a major in 27. He threw away more tournaments and more money than a sailor on shore leave. He never learned to play commercial golf. He only won one U.S. Open, but he was in a playoff in three others and in one of them threw away a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play.
He had the physique of a middleweight boxer, the hands of a bricklayer and you didn’t have to watch the shot to see where it went, you could tell by Palmer’s face. But he never cried. The grass was never too long, the greens too hard, the weather too bad and, once, when he made a 12 on a hole at the L.A. Open and someone asked him what happened, Palmer replied, “I missed a short putt for an 11.”
In a sense, he made golf in the early TV era. If Palmer didn’t play, people didn’t watch. If he didn’t win, it was a non-tournament.
And he pumped so much life into the senior tour that it now outranks the ladies’ tour--and, sometimes, the men’s.
A few of us were on the phone to the aging idol the other morning. He’s getting ready for the annual Senior Skins Game, a modification of the great game that has caught the imagination of the public and that, fittingly enough, came into public favor because it had Arnold Palmer on screen live and on the attack again.
This year’s Senior Skins Game, which will be played at Mauna Lani on the big island in Hawaii on Jan. 26-27, will be a fivesome--and everybody knows why. Chi-Chi Rodriguez has earned a place in the traditional foursome, having won $729,788 on the senior tour last year. Arnold won only $65,519. He’s in the field because he’s defending champion. But he’s also in the field because he’s Arnold Palmer. We play five, gentlemen.
In looking back on an illustrious career, Palmer is asked if he had any regrets, any things he wished he had done differently. How about the seven-shot lead he threw away in the Open at Olympic in 1966?
“Nah,” said Palmer. “I had a seven-shot lead. I was trying to make it 11.
“I did it my way.”
He still does. It’s what keeps us young.