Like all my pals in the sportswriting dodge, I became a huge Arnold Palmer fan early on. He made our job easy. Not because he was so colorfully reckless in how he went about winning and losing, but because he was so darn nice, friendly and cooperative. He treated us like equals rather than servants. Rare in those days.
I was first awakened to Arnold’s future greatness by one of his fellow pros, Jay Hebert. This was upstairs in the Augusta National clubhouse in 1958 a few days before Palmer would win his first Masters. I was working for a Texas newspaper then and doing a piece on how Ken Venturi was looking like the game’s next big star. I was interviewing other pros on the subject. The sport was in need of a new hero. Ben Hogan and Sam Snead were in their sunset years, and Cary Middlecoff was still calling every writer “pard.”
I recall my shock when I asked Hebert to list the qualities that were helping Venturi become the next great golfer.
Jay said, “Ken Venturi’s not the next great golfer. Arnold Palmer is.”
Arnold Palmer? The guy who can’t keep his shirttail in? The guy who thinks he can drive the golf ball through a tree trunk? Why him?
Hebert said, “Because he’s longer than most of us, and he makes six birdies a round. He also makes six bogeys, but one of these days he’s going to eliminate the bogeys.” He did. And the sports world became a more exciting place.
Then there was the day I helped Arnold win the U.S. Open, the one at Cherry Hills in 1960. I feel like I’ve written about this a hundred times, so once more won’t hurt under the circumstances.
My good friend and sportswriting colleague Bob Drum was with me in the locker room as the last round was getting underway. Writers were welcome in the locker room in those glory years. Competitors were grousing and laughing, coming and going that day. It was kind of like being backstage at the opera.
Arnold stopped by to chat with Drum and me on his way out. He was seven strokes and 14 players behind with only 18 to play, but still a contender in his mind. He said he intended to drive the first green, a 346-yard par 4, make a birdie, and maybe shoot a 65 for 280, adding, “Doesn’t 280 always win the Open?”
“Yeah, when Hogan shoots it,” I said wittily.
Arnold laughed and went out the door, and the next thing we knew he had birdied six of the first seven holes, and Drum and I were on the course chasing after him with what seemed like the entire population of Denver.
We caught up with him at the 10th tee and were visible standing at the ropes. He saw us, walked over, and said—for our stories and immortality—“Fancy seeing you here. Who’s winning the Open?”
His next move was to relieve me of my pack of Winstons and the Coke I’d just bought at a concession stand—and keep them.
That’s why I still claim an assist for his historic 65—and victory.
Final memory. It’s the close of the decade, around 1970. I was then with Sports Illustrated and visiting Arnold in Latrobe to do an instruction piece—the only one I’ve ever written, or have read. We’d fooled around on the golf course all morning, and Winnie had now served us lunch. Neither of us had the remotest idea that Arnold Palmer was done winning majors.
The coffee table had become famous by then. It was designed to hold all of the gold medals he had won and was winning. Under glass and on green velvet were strewn these hordes of gold medals. I was taking pleasure in studying them when three silver medals grabbed my attention.
The silver medals were for Arnold’s losses in U.S. Open playoffs to Jack Nicklaus in ’62 at Oakmont, to Julius Boros in ’63 at Brookline and to Billy Casper in ’66 at Olympic.
I said, “Arnold, what are these silver medals doing in here?”
He said, “Well, they’re not exactly ugly.”