There are probably more stories associated with Arnold Palmer than with most touring pros put together. But one story he was particularly fond of recounting was when his father, Deacon Palmer, showed his young son how to grip a golf club using the classic Vardon overlap grip. Palmer (pointing out that a baseball grip would have been easier) recalled his father’s words many times over his life: “Don’t let anyone ever change that grip.” The burly groundskeeper at the Latrobe Country Club imparted a strong work ethic in his son, and offered some simple but enduring advice about golf: “Hit it hard boy. Go find it and hit it hard again.”
Arnold Palmer ultimately ventured forth from his humble origins in Latrobe to travel the world playing golf, hitting the ball hard, and in the process transforming the game by virtue of his magnetic personality, swashbuckling style, and intense competitiveness. But along the way he never changed that grip or lost sight of the lessons learned in his youth about the right way to treat people, whether they were Presidents, titans of industry, or simply fans seeking autographs outside the ropes. To Palmer they were all the same; if you shared his love of the game of the golf, you had a spot in his inner circle, if only for a moment.
Frank Beard, a touring pro who was a contemporary of Palmer’s, was said to have coined the often-repeated remark that “for every dollar I make I figure I owe twenty-five cents to Arnold Palmer.” (Billy Casper observed in his autobiography: “I don’t recall anyone actually paying up.”) This indebtedness to Palmer reflected his unsurpassed impact on professional golf, which from the early days of the Twentieth Century was a grueling way to make a living. Well into the 1950s, many professionals survived principally on their earnings as club pros, and played tournaments only when they could take time away from selling clubs and giving lessons.
When Palmer broke onto the stage in 1955, golf had its first television star. Casper noted: “He played an exciting, aggressive golf game that America loved. John Wayne in spikes.” Prize money on the PGA Tour ballooned from $600,000 in 1954 to $3,700,000 in 1966. This was fueled predominantly by television revenue, which in turn was intimately linked to the Palmer persona.
Palmer won seven majors and 62 tour events, but in some ways the character of a competitor is measured by the times he came up painfully short. In the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, Palmer had a six-stroke lead over Casper with nine holes to play. Rather than play conservatively, Palmer continued in his aggressive style, found trouble on a number of holes, finished tied with Casper, and lost in a playoff the following day. The stunned Palmer would never again win a major.
Casper later commented that Palmer’s handling of the press conference after his Sunday collapse was as impressive as anything he did in his career; while many players might have skipped out, Palmer sat patiently for an hour and answered every question. He then declined a USGA invitation to exit by a side door and avoid the crowds, commenting: “Naw, the way I played, I deserve whatever they do to me.”
In his autobiography, Palmer defended his adherence to his brash style:
There’s no question that my refusal to play safe or lay up cost me the opportunity to win scores of tournaments, including, by my calculation, three or four U.S. Opens, perhaps a Masters or two, and the PGA Championship on at least two occasions. Critics who have said that a safer shot here or there would undoubtedly have won me a few more tournaments are probably correct.
But the other side of the proposition – seldom mentioned by some of those critics – is equally true: if I hadn’t had the instinctive desire to attempt those shots, regardless of the outcome, almost without thinking, I wouldn’t have won half the tournaments I did win.
Deacon would have had it no other way: “Hit the ball hard.” And don’t tinker with that grip.
Yes, the grip. On the morning after Palmer passed, Davis Love was reminiscing about meeting him; Love was struck by the firmness of Palmer’s grip when they shook hands. “It’s not that those hands were made to grip the club,” said Love. “It’s that the club was meant to fit those hands.” Love may have hit on a larger truth about Palmer’s impact on the game: Palmer was not designed to grip the game as much as the game of golf was destined to grip onto the force of his personality, his competitive spirit, and the enduring values he modeled for us all. By clinging to the King as tightly as he clung to that club, the professional game grew to new levels of prosperity without losing sight of its humble origins, all the while fueling a new interest in golf at the amateur level.
Five years ago I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Palmer at a USGA event at his Bay Hill Club in Orlando. I was on my way from my room in the lodge to the reception Sunday evening, and as I entered the lobby I spotted Mr. Palmer. I waited for him to proceed down the corridor to the reception, following behind. Suddenly he stopped and turned around, and I found myself face-to-face with the King himself. He grasped my hand, looked at me carefully with kind, piercing eyes, and asked “how are you doing?” Somehow I knew he really meant it. Taken aback, floundering for words, I replied simply “it’s a pleasure.” It was indeed. Throughout the weekend, Mr. Palmer was gracious with his time — attending cocktail hours and dinners, chatting, signing autographs, posing for pictures. He didn’t know any of us, but all that mattered was that we were connected to the USGA because we loved and supported golf. That made us his friends for the weekend.
One of the wonderful things about the game of golf is being paired on the first tee with people you have never met and likely will never meet again. Yet, a foray on the links often opens up a window into the soul of your companions like few other experiences; you share your frustrations, tribulations, and fleeting moments of joy while immersed in a game that both confounds and exhilarates. Invariably, as you walk off the 18th green, you exchange handshakes and pleasantries such as “great round,” “nice playing with you,” “enjoyed it.” And you know that, no matter how disappointing your play, you will be back.
Yesterday The King walked off the 18th green for the final time, and thousands are struggling to find words to adequately describe what he meant to the game of golf. But all we really need to say is “great round, Mr. Palmer. Nice playing with you. Thanks for the game.” I think that’s probably what he’d like to hear from all of us. He won’t be back on the links, but we can all carry his spirit with us, and try to emulate his values, as we continue our journey.[wdi_feed id=”1″] WHAT'S YOUR REACTION?