Cover story: Arnie at 80August 6, 2009

Palmer In His Prime

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

Photos (clockwise from left): AP Photos (3), GD Resource Center

Photos (clockwise from left): AP Photos (3), GD Resource Center

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."

Finsterwald, loser of the last match-play PGA (1957), winner of the first stroke-play PGA (1958), came into this world exactly four days before Palmer. Four score and four days ago... Dow and Arnie christened their uncommon friendship in 1948, when the Ohio University golf team made a swing through the South and stopped off at Wake Forest.

"I don't know, I guess we just liked a lot of the same things," Finsterwald says, "like cowboy movies. Our wives were very compatible, too, which was lucky, especially in those scrambling years at the beginning when we'd sometimes throw in together on the road. But the thing Arnie and I truly had in common, the thing both of us enjoyed most of all, was playing golf. That may sound funny, but you'd be surprised how many good players, how many pros, weren't able to enjoy it nearly as much as we did. To us it was an avocation as well as a vocation. I think of him as the greatest amateur-professional who ever lived. By that I mean he never stopped playing the game for the love of it, like an amateur. Sure, he liked making a nice living. But he loved to play. Still does."

It was at a Finsterwald tribute in Athens, Ohio, where the teenage Nicklaus first shook Palmer's hand on a tee. "Arnold shot 62 playing with Jack that day," Dow says, and he tried to shoot 62, to impress the kid. Finsterwald can still see the look in both of their eyes. The look of eagles.

COMING HOME TO LATROBE

Palmer got started a bit late on tour, at the age of 25, winning the Canadian Open straightaway. But the three years in the Coast Guard, the working-man's background, the cigarette on the lip, the stern but forgiving father he called "Pap" or "Sir," and the small town of Latrobe are other necessary parts of the endearment. Especially Latrobe. The wellspring of the Palmer grace is obvious: Wherever he went over these 80 years, and he went almost everywhere in the world, he always came home to Latrobe. He's there now, in that forest-green patch of Pennsylvania, just east of Pittsburgh, just west of the Allegheny Mountains.

He's sitting at the desk in his office, gazing out the window at his childhood.

"Just where we are now," he says, "is a history in itself. When I learned to shoot a shotgun, my father and I -- he taught me -- we walked that hillside right there and shot pheasants and rabbits and squirrels, and took them down and cleaned them in the stream right over here about 200 yards away. And my mother would put them in salt water overnight, and we'd have them the next day for food.

"Right here, right on the edge of this hill, an old oak tree fell over. Like that one there. See the squirrel climbing up? The trunk was rotten -- I'll never forget this. A bunch of honeybees had moved in. Have you ever seen a honeycomb? Well, this one was full of honey. I mean, absolutely like that! [He spread his great hands like an exaggerating fisherman.] And my dad says, 'Now, Arnie, we're going to take this honey home and give it to your mother, and we're going to eat it.' But he says, 'We got to get two five-pound bags of sugar. When we take the honey out, we're going to put those two bags of sugar right there, so the bees can have their food.' By God, we did it. I was about 7 or 8 years old."

His face is creased and leathery, naturally. He's more than a little sand-blasted, to be sure. But he still has the comfortable bearing and confident look of the athlete. And sitting there smiling, especially with his eyes, he doesn't seem or sound much different than he did on the Sunday morning of the final day of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont, when he and John Schlee were tied for the lead.

Hours before teeing off, Palmer sat around a clubhouse patio with a fine kettle of newspapermen. Among the countless times he held court this way, the Oakmont session has stood out somehow, maybe because of a gentle story he told in response to a prescient question.

Just in case an overnight downpour hadn't made the greens mushy enough, half of the sprinklers had been left on all night. Which prompted Jack Murphy of the San Diego Union to wonder, "What if somebody goes out early and shoots 63?"

(Had Murphy said 62 or 64, this would sound less like "new journalism." But he said 63.)

"If somebody does that," Palmer answered ruefully, "I can promise you one thing: The members will be mad as hell. They're not paying for 63s." Glancing down the road toward Latrobe, he added, "You know, some people around here think they can buy anything."

Being the son of an employee at Latrobe Country Club, young Arnold was always expected to make himself invisible on the property. His father, Deacon, was at least as much a course superintendent as a teaching pro, and far more tractor driver than Izod salesman. One day in the golf shop -- possibly the best day of Arnie's boyhood -- Pap ferociously lit into a member who was chewing out his son for nothing. But, generally, the boy tried to keep out from underfoot.

Their house adjoined the sixth tee. On ladies' days, with a cap pistol in a holster strapped to his hip, he leaned like Paladin against a back-yard tree and fixed his gunfighter's stare on a ditch in the distance.

"I was available to hit their drives over the hazard for a nickel," he said at Oakmont. "Some of them were slow pay." Sitting at his desk now, he laughs at that. He still hops when he laughs. "Helen Fritz," he says. (He remembers her name.) "She was my first customer. 'Arnie,' she said, 'if you hit this ball across that ditch, I'll give you a nickel.' " That was the day he turned pro.

When it came time for Schlee and Palmer to tee off at Oakmont, Murphy went out with a colleague to the first tee to find only Schlee. He was a Texan who liked to wear Hawaiian shirts because his high-water mark was a victory in the Hawaiian Open. Schlee was completely alone on the tee. No spectators, no caddies, no Palmer. He propped a ball up on a peg, clocked it with his driver and headed off down the fairway. What had just taken place took awhile to register, but, as it turned out, that wasn't Schlee's only drive at No. 1. He had walked all the way to his first ball, only to find it unplayable.

"Palmer," Murphy whispered, "is leading the Open." But Johnny Miller was already halfway to his 63.

"Tee to green," Arnold says, "I played better golf from the late '60s through the middle to late '70s than I played at any other time in my life. Won less, but played better. If my clubs were right, I thought I could do whatever I wanted to do with the golf ball. That's kind of how I felt about playing. The actual shotmaking was better from '65 to '76, '77, but I didn't make things happen as I did in the early years. Still, I don't regret a single thing. I'd have liked to win a PGA, but I had a good run."

FROM A GAME TO A SPORT

Palmer's impact on the sport, especially the selling of it in the United States, is mammoth. The simplest way to put it is, he is the one who made it a sport. It had been a game. In that mythical first foursome of American golf (Palmer, Bobby Jones, Dwight Eisenhower and Bob Hope), he is the connector to all of the others, and the captain. "Ike doesn't get nearly as much credit as he should," Palmer says, but the World Golf Hall of Fame is about to take care of that.

Arnold record

He has known many presidents. Richard Nixon asked his opinion about the Vietnam War. His advice amounted to: Whatever you do, don't lay up. But Ike was his friend. On the weekend of Palmer's 37th birthday, wives Winnie and Mamie conspired to spirit Eisenhower from Gettysburg to Latrobe for a surprise visit. When the bell rang and Arnie opened the front door, there stood the Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe and the 34th President of the United States, holding a little overnight bag in his hand. "We didn't play golf," Palmer says. "He couldn't play anymore. We just hung out. He was the greatest."

Arnold lost his darling Winnie to cancer in 1999, but she's still here. She's everywhere in the building. Shaking off his own cancer, he found Kit in 2005. He won the daily double. Arnie must be God's favorite golfer, too.

Eisenhower painted Palmer's picture. So did Norman Rockwell. Why wouldn't he? Millions of photographs, honors and mementos surround the place now, ranging from a Hickok Belt and a Sportsman urn to a Bill Mazeroski baseball and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Across from Arnold's desk, a couple of golf balls are mounted under glass.

At a senior event near Washington in 1986, Palmer made a hole-in-one with a 5-iron, and on the same spot a day later, he did it again. That first morning, Player was in the group ahead, waiting beside the green. "I saw him standing there," Arnold said later. "I wanted to hit a good one." Hearing that, Gary just shook his head. "He always knew how to share a moment of triumph," he said. "Yours or his. Sometimes in life, it can be very hard to find someone to share your moments of triumph."

On the third day, the national media showed up in force to see if Palmer would score another ace. It was a little like staking out a random airport on the chance Amelia Earhart might land. But it was fun. When Arnie missed the cup, everybody moaned, cheered and left.

The boy who wasn't allowed on the course owns it now. Lock, stock and a subdivision of guesthouses. He seems to own the whole town. His face is on the phone book, and his name is on the airport. Even at his age, Arnold continues to be fully qualified to pilot his jet. Every year he is checked out again for several days in simulators, where his nickname should be Flying Colors.

Arnold is pleased by today's game. He likes it. He likes Tiger. "I spent three hours one night with him early on," he says. "More than three hours, four hours. At his request. And it was good. I met his father, but I can't say I knew him."

Earl Woods, you could say, took some knowing.

"You knew him," Palmer says. "What was he like?"

Good-hearted, once you got inside the shell. Of course, it wasn't easy to get inside the shell.

"Well, you know," he says, "you can see that and feel it in Tiger, too. My father was like that."

Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Finsterwald, Floyd -- none of them are putting their feet up and stopping. But certain birthdays unleash memories. It's hard not to start adding up the scores.

"I've stayed in Arnold's house," Player says. "He's stayed in mine. He came to South Africa, and we took him down a gold mine. And his mother. I just loved his mother. She was a dear lady. And I loved his father. He was just as tough as they say, but that wasn't the whole story. As professional golfers, you know, we compete against each other our whole lives, and I tried to beat Arnold's ass in every single way I could. But you laugh together as you go, and you cry together sometimes. Arnold and I actually, physically, cried together. At the end of the day, we played for each other. Money was never the criterion. We were all playing for something better than money."

Nicklaus says, "Arnold and I wanted to beat each other's brains in, but I consider him one of my closest friends in the game. There's no question about his record and ability, but think of how much he brought to the game. The hitch of his pants. The fans. He paralleled the growth of television golf. He was just the right man at just the right time." "When I think of him," Floyd says, "I think of his hands. The greatest set of hands I've ever seen. I was on the practice tee once, hitting it a little crooked, and went right to him for help. He clamped my club in one hand like a vise and bent it just slightly at the neck. I started hitting them straight as can be. Somebody once took a picture of those hands. I've kept it."

Finsterwald says, "You know that PGA Tour slogan, 'These guys are good?' I wish they'd make a new commercial showing Retief Goosen missing that little putt at Southern Hills and then winning the U.S. Open playoff the next day. 'These guys are good -- and they are human.' That's Palmer, above all. Human."

DEACON'S LESSONS

The great Doc Giffin, dean of golf's media major-domos, is still on the job after 43 years, still serving Palmer. In the Latrobe locker room, he points out a cubicle that has been closed for 33 years. The nameplate says, "Milfred J. (Deacon) Palmer, Golf Professional-Course Superintendent, Latrobe Country Club, 1921-1976."

Nineteen-seventy-six was the year Doc's best friend, Bill Finigan, was killed in a private plane crash. Giffin and Finigan grew up together in Crafton, a suburb of Pittsburgh. After the funeral, Palmer urged Doc to take his vacation right away, to go to Bay Hill in Orlando. "Deacon came up to me and said, 'Can I go with you?' I was surprised, but grateful for the company. 'Sure,' I said."

In the middle of the flight, the tough guy turned to Doc and said, "You've lost your best friend. I'll try to be your best friend now." Two days later in Florida, Deacon had a heart attack and died.

Arnold shot 64 the day before at Bob Hope's tournament in California. Of course he withdrew.

Deacon taught Arnie respect, integrity, manners, empathy and how to grip a golf club. But the best thing he ever taught him was, when you take the honey out, put some sugar back in. That's what Palmer has done his whole life.