Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My day with Arnie, the King

       He was my favorite golfer always, as he was for millions. And I spent one day -- at a distance -- with Arnie.
    I write this with apologies to Hal Sutton and David Toms, the best two golfers of recent vintage from Shreveport and my favorites from the late 1970s through today.
Arnie, his health obviously declining, at his final Masters
opening ceremony appearance in April 2016 (from
    Like so many of the thousand PGA Tour stars who followed, I think they will tell you they are indebted to Arnie.
   On a Sunday that began with sadness with the news of the death of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins in a boating accident and the not-totally-unexpected firing of Les Miles as head football coach at LSU, the news that evening was most difficult for me came in  a text message from a friend:
    "Tragically sad day. Arnold is gone."
    Oh, Arnie. We loved you so.
    This has been a year of more deaths of sports and sports media icons, nationally and on a personal level, than I can ever remember. For those of us who relish the late 1950s and the 1960s, Arnie was one of the greatest memories.
    He was the golfer I rooted for -- not for his greatest rival and great friend, Jack Nicklaus; not Lee Trevino; not Gary Player or Raymond Floyd or Billy Casper or any of the others.
    If Arnie was playing, I was in the television Army.
    And one day, in June 1989, I was in the on-course Arnie's Army in a round at Sawgrass' then-new The Valley Course in North Florida. It was the only time I followed him live.
    It was the Senior Players Championship; it was on a day I wasn't working at the Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville) and so I took the long drive (45 minutes or so) from Orange Park,  where we lived to Ponte Vedra Beach, home of PGA Tour office and the adjoining course, the more famous Stadium Course.   
    Not having grown up as a golfer, rarely having covered the sport until the mid-1980s and still not knowing much about the intricacies, I was grateful -- despite my lack of knowledge -- to be on the Times-Union coverage team for five The Players Championship tournaments.
   Arnie never played in those, his best PGA Tour days long behind him. If he had been there, I would have followed him. Still, following my other favorites -- Sutton and Greg Norman (this was before Toms made the Tour) -- was exciting.
   But the one day, at the Senior Players, was memorable.
   Arnie was no longer a contender but still competitive, and he did not play well that day. He struggled for, I want to say, a 74. And in the news conference afterward, which I sat in on, he was un-Arnie-like.
   In the hundreds of interviews I've seen and the hundreds of stories I read, Arnie was almost always gracious, courteous, with a story/memory or two, his humor wry, his comments diplomatic even in controversy. 
   That day at Sawgrass, he was a bit peeved. His answers about his game were curt, not expansive. He wasn't rude, but he obviously was not happy with his play.
   He was, as we were reminded last night watching a 2011 interview with Charlie Rose, his own toughest critic. He told Charlie that his Latrobe, Pa., club pro father, Deke, who had brought him up in and taught him the game, always told him: "Don't tell people how great you are; show them."
     Obviously, he showed them so much over the years. For me, he was golf for many years.
     I have seen many beautiful stories/columns written on Arnie the past few days, including those by my golf writer friends -- Jeff Rude, Garry Smits, Jeff Babineau -- and by the great Dan Jenkins (of Fort Worth). (Links are below.) 
     My favorite Arnie golf memory: His last of his 62 PGA Tour victories, at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He won it in typical Arnie fashion, with flair: A last-hole birdie putt, and a pump-fisting celebration. We were watching on TV at The Shreveport Times.
      Biggest Arnie disappointment: What else? The 1966 U.S. Open when he blew a seven-shot lead in the final nine of the fourth round, while Billy Casper blazed to a 32 and tied him. Then Casper won an 18-hole playoff the next day.
      Arnie finished second in the Open again the next year (he was second four times in a six-year period), but he never won another major.
      Watching that Sunday round from San Francisco was, unbelievably, an even greater collapse than Norman's blowing a six-shot lead in the first nine holes at the 1996 Masters, finishing with a painful 78 and losing by five shots to Faldo. Loved watching Norman, exciting and flawed, almost as much as Arnie.
      My fondest Arnie memory: He was guest host of The Tonight Show, the first athlete I'd ever seen do that. Looked this up -- it was July 17, 1970, one of those rare nights (there's a laugh here) that Johnny Carson was away on vacation or appearing in Las Vegas. I loved Carson and The Tonight Show, so I watched often.
       I was so proud Arnie was the host. Don't remember much, except he was not exactly adept at the monologue, not quite as at home as on a golf course, and I know he wore a bright red blazer. Arnie always was a colorful dresser.
       He was a colorful character, period, and one of the sports greats of our time. He was golf's ace ambassador.


  1. From Ike Futch: I really enjoyed your article on Arnie. When I played for the Augusta Yankees in 1962 and cutting articles from the Augusta Herald for my scrapbook, I also had a number of articles on Arnie. I really like the one about the size of the purses back then. Baseball players were not the only athletes that didn't get paid as much as people thought they did. I stayed at the Bon Air Hotel as most of our single guys did and several golfers stayed there during the Masters. The street in front of the hotel went to the entrance of the Masters.

  2. From Sandi Atkinson: Well done. I am with you -- he WAS golf to me. In later years, of course, I followed Sutton and Toms and became totally enamored (in the golf-watching sense) of Phil and Dustin. ... Having worked three blocks from Bay Hill, I had the luxury of a boss (Charlie McClendon) who knew Arnie personally. We actually sat at the same table one day (circa 1989) with him. I have never been a star-struck kind of person, but it was ARNIE. I doubt I said a word after “Hello, it’s so nice to meet you,” mostly in fear of making an ass of myself. What Arnold Palmer did for Orlando, aside from putting Bay Hill Golf Club here, is legendary. Two hospitals bear the Palmer name and he made sure it wasn’t in name only that they existed. He visited them each five or six times a year. But, I think what endeared him to so many -- especially me -— was his humility. He never had a celebrity ego. He was always a gentleman and a gentle man. I cried the day he died.

  3. From Gene Land: I had the privilege to walk with Mr. Palmer in the early '80s at a Senior Tour event at the Desert Inn. It was a big crowd (raining), Arnie, his caddie, Raff Botts, his caddie and me. We visited for 18 holes. The golfers' dream.

  4. From Jim Robinson: I was lucky enough to be at the Players and the Senior Players Championships in 1989. I worked as part of the Navy contingent which handled security. I still have my badges and hats from the three years I worked tournaments. I worked both tournaments in 1987, 1988 and 1989. I also still have the ballcap signed by Tom Kite and his caddy in 1989. I was even lucky enough to work the entrance to the players locker room as one of my assignments. I was also the walking guard with Hal Sutton's group in 1987.
    Loved your article about Arnie. Never got to meet him, but loved him and watched him with my parents in the early days. I can remember my mother cussing that Jack Nicklaus guy when he started challenging Arnie for wins.

  5. From Tommy Henry: Great blog on Arnie. I was fortunate to be at the Masters in 1960 when he won with a long birdie putt on No. 17 (I believe). He beat Dow Finsterwald, who incurred a two-stroke penalty for putting again on an earlier hole after the hole had been played. That was the penalty in those days but not at the present time.
    I was a young 2nd Lieutenant in the Army enrolled in Military Police school at nearby Fort Gordon. If you wore your uniform, you could get in for $1. So I went to the tournament the last two days. I really didn't know much about the Masters back then and had never heard of Arnold Palmer. However, since I was in the Army it was only fitting that I joined his "Army" and followed him both days. Compared to now the crowd at the Masters wasn't that large. But it was both exciting and memorable and naturally I pulled for him to win -- and he did.
    I also sat next to him at the National High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1986 when we had Kim Mulkey and Joe Ferguson inducted, along with Johnny Bench. We talked throughout the entire ceremony just like we were buddies. His head jerked up when they announced Kim's high school and college GPAs. He told me that he couldn't even come close to matching those outstanding marks. He was just a normal guy that night even though he was already a golfing legend and a most outstanding person.
    So that's my Arnie stories ...