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Cover story: Arnie at 80

Palmer In His Prime

As Arnold turns 80, it's time to savor the skill and charisma that changed golf

September 2009

Records speak for themselves, but Arnold Palmer's splendid record speaks too softly. As he turns 80 on September 10, how important he is has obscured how great he was.

Palmer didn't invent golf, just grace and golf, just television and golf. Raymond Floyd says, "Arnold was the epitome of a superstar," even before that word was coined. "He set the standard for how superstars in every sport ought to be, in the way he has always signed autographs, in the way he has always made time for everyone." In his patience. In his decency.

"On the golf course," Floyd says, "all I ever saw was a mass of people. I saw, but I didn't see. He was able to focus in on everyone in the gallery individually. It wasn't fake." He was able to make eye contact with the entire world.

Once, he was a tremendous driver. "Oh, man," Floyd says, "one of the best drivers of the golf ball in history. Long and straight." Once, he charged putts like he charged everything. "I don't think," Floyd says, "I ever saw him leave a putt short."

"I always thought Arnold was a good iron player, too," says Jack Nicklaus, who stood in the rain and watched Palmer hitting irons even before Jack knew who he was. This was outside Toledo in 1954. Neither the 24-year-old amateur champion on the range nor the 14-year-old dreamer on the hill had any idea they would someday be hyphenated.

"I just saw a young, strong guy," Nicklaus says, "who hit the ball hard, beat it hard -- beat it into the ground." A beater of the ball originally, Palmer became a swinger of the club eventually. He was knocking down 9-irons and 7-irons under the storm. Nicklaus was drenched to the skin. "Oh, that's Arnold Palmer," he said later.

From then on, Jack followed Arnold from afar, just like everyone else in and out of golf, as old black telephones on copy desks in sports departments jangled with one question: "What did Arnie do today?"

But for a solitary stroke in regulation twice, he could have been live after three legs of the Grand Slam in 1960 and 1962. After winning the Masters and U.S. Open in '60, he lost the British Open by one shot to Australian Kel Nagle, who required nine fewer putts. (Getting some of his own back, as the British say, Palmer took the next two Open Championships on the trot, the second by six strokes over Nagle.)

In '62, of course, he lost the U.S. Open playoff to Nicklaus at Oakmont between Masters and British triumphs. From '60 to '63, Arnold won 29 tournaments and finished second 10 times. During that blitz, he had 66 top 10s on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods isn't the first golfer who ever dominated.

A smaller moment in '62 has stayed with Nicklaus. "It was at the Phoenix Open," he says, "the first time we played as pros in the same group. I needed a birdie on the last hole to finish second to him in the tournament. I'll never forget coming to the 18th tee."

"Relax," Palmer whispered, "you can birdie this hole. C'mon, it's important."

"I did birdie it," Jack says, "finishing second, making a whopping $2,300. Oh, by the way, he nipped me that week by 12 shots."

After beating Nicklaus and Dave Marr by six in the 1964 Masters, shrugging his strong shoulders into a fourth green jacket, Palmer stopped winning majors at the now-astonishing age of 34. However, because he was second to Jack at Augusta the following spring and remained a constant on U.S. Open leader boards for the next 10 years, nobody noticed.

But for a solitary stroke in regulation thrice, Palmer would have won three U.S. Opens from 1962 through 1966, which would have brought his total to four in seven years. If it sounds like he's losing a lot of playoffs (to Nicklaus at Oakmont, to Julius Boros at The Country Club, to Billy Casper after the cataclysmic collapse at Olympic), consider that Arnold won 14 playoffs on tour, the same number as Jack. Nobody has won more.

Gary Player, who with Dow Finsterwald lost a three-man Masters playoff to Palmer in 1962, says, "Jack won majors for 25 years; I won them for 20; Arnold won them for six. But because he was so charismatic, because he did so much for golf, because the people loved him so dearly, they thought he was still winning. And, you know what? He was." He was winning hearts.

Although Palmer went through warehouses full of golf clubs, Player remembers one No. 1 wood in particular. "It was the most wicked-looking driver you ever saw in your life," he says. "It must have had 11 degrees of loft. Well, he needed it. He was a very shut-faced player. I tell you, he could hit that thing so straight and so far. Arnold was such a beautiful driver, such a wonderful putter. I've seen other players who weren't afraid to knock the ball five and six feet past, who trusted themselves to hole those comebackers one after another after another. But none of them could touch Palmer." He was the inventor.

Famously, he was adventurous. "Just as he won some tournaments taking unnecessary gambles," Player says, "he lost some tournaments taking unnecessary gambles. But that was Arnold." With a hitch of his trousers and a whirlybird swing, he could make a triple bogey proud. "That was part of the endearment," Gary says. "He did absolutely everything the same damn way. It wasn't his nature to lag a putt because it wasn't his nature to lag, period. He woke up charging, charging, charging. He fell out of bed with all this great charisma, just fell out of bed with it."

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