By In Golf

Arnie Turns 87

About 25 years ago — sheesh, really, 25 years? — I covered my first Masters. It was, coincidentally, the first golf tournament I had ever covered. I had been hired blindly as columnist for the Augusta Chronicle because, well, you’d have to ask them. I had never played a round of golf. And my only experience as a golf writer was the community golf notebook I would do for York Observer in Rock Hill, S.C., and even that I messed up routinely. I remember once talking to one of the organizers of a local charity golf tournament, and he was explaining to me that it was a Captain’s Choice tournament.

“What’s that?” I asked. He explained the Captain’s Choice format — all golfers hitting and then everyone playing the best ball — and I was so blown away by the novelty of this that I wrote the first eight paragraphs of the column about this cool new way to play golf. An editor (who was, as she often told me, almost oblivious to golf and sports in general) saved me by pointing out that Captain’s Choice is essentially the most popular charity golf format on planet earth and probably all other planets. She found it both hilarious and frightening that I did not know this.

Still, the Augusta Chronicle — which, you might expect, cares quite a bit about golf — hired me to write sports columns. And that made me the lead columnist for the Augusta paper at the 1992 Masters. It still boggles the mind.

As you might imagine, I was all but helpless leading into the tournament. I had no idea where to go, what to do, who to talk with, how to write any of it.

On the first day, I watched Arnold Palmer come in from his practice round. He was, let’s see here, 62 years old then*, still strong, still full of the energy and life that had made him golf’s most iconic figure. I knew him from the Pennzoil commercials, mostly. He had not made the cut at Augusta in a few years but there was still a sense of possibility about him then, still a sense that he just might have one more charge left in him.

*Originally had 52. Math.

He came off the course after that practice round, and he was in the best of spirits, of course. I’m sure he has had his dark moods but in public, he was always ecstatic; his mood always seemed to say, “I’m Arnold Palmer. OF COURSE I’m having a good day.” He answered a couple of reporters’ questions under the marvelous oak tree that stands in front of the Augusta National Clubhouse. I wandered over. I supposed that as the columnist for the Augusta Chronicle, I should introduce myself to the King. But I’ve never really been good at that sort of thing.

I waited for everyone to finish. Eventually, the other two or three reporters sort of faded off, and it was just me and Arnie. At this point, it might have been good for me to have a question in mind or an introduction or something, but I did not have any of that so I kind of just stood there and looked at him. It was probably no more than three seconds, but it felt like I stood there silent for about 20 years. Finally, someone spoke, but it wasn’t me. It was Palmer.

“How are you doing today?” he asked me.

I have absolutely no idea why he said that. The normal thing for athletes to do — and by “normal” I mean I have never seen a single other athlete do what Palmer did — is to walk away as soon as the last question is asked. But Palmer stuck around. He somehow sensed that I wanted to talk with him. He somehow sensed that I was nervous. He somehow sensed that he could help me.

His words shook me from the paralysis I’d been feeling, and I introduced myself. I was wearing a badge that said “AUGUSTA CHRONICLE” on it, and I suspect he saw that. He mentioned several of the people at the Chronicle he had known through the years. He told me he thought the paper had always been good to him. He told me the phrase “Arnie’s Army” had started with a headline in the Chronicle (though it had been coined by a G.I. whose name, unfortunately, is lost to history). He told me I had an important legacy to keep. And he asked me what I was planning to write about.

In my own stumbling way, I told him that I wasn’t too knowledgeable about golf. I think I told him this by asking him a series of increasingly dumber questions. He smiled and made a suggestion or two, I don’t remember what those were. I do remember that he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’ll keep my eye on you.”

And for the rest of that tournament, into the next year and the next, whenever I would see Arnold Palmer, whenever our eyes would meet, he would give me a little thumbs up sign. I took that at the time to mean he had read my columns and approved what I was doing but, in retrospect, it probably did not mean that at all. It probably meant simply, “Hey, kid, I remember you.”

Fortunately, the magic works either way.

Arnold Palmer is probably not one of the four greatest golfers in the history of the game. He’s not Tiger or Jack, he’s not Hogan or Jones, and you can argue on from there. But if there was a Mount Rushmore for golf, he would be on it. He would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore in part because of the way he played with his jerky swing and his go-for-broke style. He smoked his cigarettes and rode the wind and cheers and the momentum. He simply changed the way people looked at the game as a spectator sport. He made the game thrilling.

He would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore in part because of the way he lit up the television rreen. Golf on television made no sense to a lot of people in the 1950s; the sport seemed too massive and too undramatic for television. Then came the King. “The cameras loved Palmer,” the legendary sports television producer Frank Chirkinian said. “He would show up on the screen and it was like: ‘WHAM!'”een

And Arnold Palmer would be on Golf’s Mount Rushmore mostly because of the way he engaged with people. He chatted with the crowd. He made them feel a part of his successes … and his failures. He was just a regular guy, a factory worker or auto mechanic or longshoreman who happened to play golf. He took the sport out of the country clubs. He inspired countless people to buy a golf club at yard sales and swing at a few whiffle balls in the back yard.

Arnie turns 87 today, and I think about many things, but I especially think about his kindness. Years later, I mentioned to him our first meeting. He smiled as if he remembered, though he surely did not, and he said: “Well, you turned out OK.” And then he walked off to make someone else’s life a little bit brighter.

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20 Responses to Arnie Turns 87

  1. JACK M TAYLOR JR says:

    87-25=62. NOT 52.

  2. Steve Presant says:

    Incredible, Joe. I met him once around the same time, 25 years ago (though I was only about 10 at the time) in a hotel lobby in Indianapolis. To this day I still remember how kind and approachable he seemed, even to a kid from Canada. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Tom Lawrence says:

    I also found Mr. Palmer incredibly kind and engaging when I covered a charity tournament in Oregon in 1989-1992, The Fred Meyer Challenge.
    While other, lesser golfers were predictably quick to brush off the media and public, Mr. Palmer was eager to talk with anyone and willing to answer any and all questions.
    At one tourney, after the other golfers hurried in and out of the press tent, Arnie took all questions. When a press staffer tried to wrap thing up, Arnie told him he was enjoying the conversation. Get me another beer, he said, and we kept firing questions.
    A small note: Since Arnie is 87 today, that means he was 62, not 52 when Joe met him 25 years ago.

  4. kcoracle says:

    Great writing, as typical. Joe has had a charmed life, but among his writing gifts are that he often shares the story in a way that mostly makes other people look good.

    • invitro says:

      Joe very rarely talks bad about sports guys. I guess they’ve gotta be pretty rotten for Joe to be negative. I remember… Clemens, Marino, Yawkey. Can’t think of any other bad guys right now.

  5. Jim bagby says:

    I first interviewed Arnie in 1963 as a fledgling sports reporter for the Norman (Okla.) Transcript. To this day I have no idea what I said. He was patient and gracious. A story emerged.

    I got the chance again in the late ’80s when Palmer was one of the guests in Tom Watson’s annual, ultrasuccessful Charity Classic for Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. By then i was in the midst of a long Associated Press career. No way Arnie could have remembered our first encounter — but I thanked profusely for it.

    And once again his answers were better than my questions.

  6. invitro says:

    Maybe today’s new reporters know Arnie as that guy in the commercial with Chris Bosh.

  7. Andrew says:

    I once read a story about an opposing ballplayer talking to Stan Musial before a game. He’d enjoyed a perfect breakfast, a great morning, a terrific lunch and a tremendous batting practice. He felt sure of three hits in the upcoming game, and asked Musial if he ever felt like that. “Every day,” said Musial. Since then I have wondered if these rare, golden figures are the legends they are primarily because something special happens between their ears that doesn’t happen for the rest of us.

  8. HDS says:

    Artie, Gordie Howe, Musial, Ali…these men had a different way of dealing with fans than athletes today. What athlete today interacts with the public the way these guys did?

    • Andy says:

      I hear it time and again from fans and have experienced it myself: IndyCar Drivers interact with the public like those guys did.

    • Mark Daniel says:

      In defense of today’s athletes, Arnie never had twitter idiots to contend with. I imagine that if in Arnie’s prime the twitterverse went bonkers over his pants or some stupid thing, and he received all manner of rude, obnoxious, insulting and threatening comments, he’d have a slightly different attitude about dealing with the public.

    • Jack says:

      Wayne Gretzky

  9. Andrew Frasier says:

    Any news on the baseball 100?

  10. Talltexan says:

    Funny, when I moved to Charlotte a few years ago, I often imagined running into Joe and our first meeting going something like this as well (with him in the Arnold Palmer position).

  11. Jim says:

    Joe Torre. On an impromptu sports assignment I was at the postgame press conference, but couldn’t get recognized by the organizer. As everyone filed out of the room, Joe Torre walked straight over and said, “I think you have a question for me.” He then gave me five minutes of his time, some great insight for the story I was writing, and finally HE thanked me before heading off. I’ll never forget how gracious he was.

  12. bob rittner says:

    I get the impression that the women golfers are very fan friendly. I saw Lydia Ko for example handing out gloves and chatting with fans, and when she had to move on to submit her card (I think) she assured them she would return as soon as she finished. I have noticed many of the other women on the LPGA tour act similarly.

  13. PhilM says:

    I just heard: such a sad day in sports.

    The King is dead — long live the King!

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