As a kid, I was an Arnie guy.
If you followed golf back in the mid-1960s you were either for Arnie or Jack. There was none of this “I kind of like both of them” stuff. It wasn’t that you disliked one; it was more that you passionately loved the other. With Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, fans chose sides and did not cross lines.
My best friend growing up, Joe Cunis, was a devoted Jack guy. We would have long discussions over who was the better golfer, and in 1965 that was still in dispute. Joe saw Nicklaus’s pure talent and cold-blooded ability to close the deal and win. I saw Arnie’s swashbuckling, go-for-broke style that on more than one occasion led to heart-breaking losses.
Nicklaus was 10 years younger and just beginning his legend, while Palmer was in his prime, with four Masters titles, two British Opens and one very stirring U.S. Open comeback already under his hitched-up belt. But Nicklaus had taken down the King in the 1962 Open at Oakmont, and by ’65, it was beginning to become clear that the Golden Bear was on a career trajectory unlike any other.
I’d been thinking about Arnie this summer ever since seeing him on television at the Masters in April. Now 86, he was unable to join Nicklaus and Gary Player as honorary starters to open the tournament. Instead, he came to the first tee in a wheelchair, and for the first time he looked old and frail. It had been the same scene one month earlier at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he appeared on camera for an interview, but otherwise was no longer a visible presence around the golf course. People started wondering, “What’s wrong with Arnie?”
We don’t like to see our childhood heroes grow old. It makes us feel old. Palmer hasn’t competed on the PGA Tour in decades, yet he has always appeared vibrant and invincible. To this day, he remains one of golf’s most marketable stars, ranking fifth on Golf Digest’s 2016 list of money earners with $40 million in income. Until the last few years, he would still play golf regularly at the two clubs he owns, Bay Hill Country Club in Florida and Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania. There were few concessions to age.
I’m too young to remember Arnie at the peak of his powers, which came from 1958 to 1964 when he won all seven of his major championships. But I became a fan just the same. He was intoxicating to watch, slashing furiously at the golf ball and oozing charisma every step along the way. On the golf course, he was larger than life, a combination of Ted Williams and John Wayne. Who else has a drink named after him?
I first met Palmer in 1980 at the Marlborough Country Club in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He was 50 and in the process of popularizing the Seniors (now called Champions) Tour, just as he’d done with the PGA Tour. I was a young reporter for the local newspaper who was more than a little star-struck, but as was his custom, he was adept at putting nervous folks at ease. I asked him to sign a photograph for my brother, who had recently won a friends/family tournament I have held for the past 35 years. My brother is the worst golfer I have ever played with and only a 40-stroke handicap allowed him to prevail. But Arnie, tongue-in-cheek, signed “From one great champion to another.”
More recently, our paths crossed in 2011 when I pitched a story to Sports Illustrated that linked Palmer with John F. Kennedy. I had discovered a 16-millimeter film that was shot of JFK playing golf at the Hyannisport Club in 1963. Further research revealed that Kennedy had planned to invite Palmer to the White House to view the film and critique his swing. The invitation was going to be extended when Kennedy returned from a trip to Dallas.
Forty-eight years later we took the film to Palmer in Latrobe and he graciously provided his analysis. His advice: “I would have told him to firm up the arms, get over to his right side, then get all the way through to his left side. You could see him shooting in the mid-80s.”
Over the years I grew to admire and cheer for Nicklaus, but I’m still an Arnie guy. That will never change.