AMIDST ALL THE wearisome ballyhoo about Tiger Woods and ‘will he, won’t he ever win another major?’ that so many lazy golf writers use to pad out their copy it is worth remembering that Arnold Palmer was 85 on September 10th.
Before Palmer strode into professional golf the game had been a determinedly upmarket affair on both side of the Atlantic. US broadcaster, Vin Scully, summed up the advent of Palmer quite brilliantly when he came out with the line, ‘In a sport that was high society he made it “High Noon.”’
Palmer’s genius coincided with the advent of television and, particularly in the USA, commercial television. Between 1958 and 1964 he won seven majors becoming the first player ever to win four Masters.
He became professional golf’s first millionaire from his winnings alone and helped regenerate the Open Championship in the process; he was a crowd pleaser for all walks of life- a man who, when in doubt would pull out his driver and lash one off the tee. ‘Arnie’s Army’ of followers was born.
He won back-to-back Open Championships in 1961 and 1962, at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon respectively. Where Palmer went, other Americans soon followed and the Open was restored to its rightful place in the golfing firmament.
What golf fans loved about Palmer was his fallibility as much as his genius; for those who never saw him play, the nearest comparison over recent decades would be Seve Ballesteros. Like Seve, Palmer never won a USPGA title, the nearest he came was losing by one shot to Julius Boros, in 1968. Galleries loved him because he was the first ‘grip it and rip it’ player and his approach to the game reflected that of so many ordinary golfers who, when in doubt, always took on a challenge rather than play conservatively.
In one of the greatest collapses of all time, he started the final nine holes of the 1966 US Open at the Olympic Club, San Francisco seven shots clear. Having won the trophy in 1960 having been seven shots behind no one gave his nearest challenger, Bill Casper, a chance.
Casper went on a charge but Palmer was still five clear with four to play. But then he dropped two on 15, another two on 16 and bogeyed 17 and his lead had gone. Even in the playoff, Palmer was two ahead with eight to go, but dropped six more shots shooting 73 to Casper’s 69. He had blown it in spectacular fashion but his fans only loved him the more for it. The fact that he was fallible made him somehow more accessible.
His earnings potential attracted the keen interest of a young Illinois lawyer who offered to take care of everything off the course in order that Arnie could simply concentrate on his golf. Mark McCormack’s International Management Group would never have existed without Palmer.
As age started to take its toll his knock-kneed putting stroke was proving ever more fallible, but Palmer’s earnings continued to soar through off-course endorsements. By the late 1990s his marketing income approached $15m, three decades after his last major victory. His charisma has never waned.
His legacy to golf has been enormous. Charlie Siffert, became the first black player to compete on the USPGA tour, suffering death threats along the way to becoming the first ever black tournament winner with victory at the Greater Hartford Open in 1967.
Siffert, who inspired black golfers such as Lee Elders and Calvin Peete along with a certain serviceman named Earl Woods who thought his young son Eldred ought to play, said of Palmer, ‘If it wasn’t for Arnold, some of these scraggly wimps would be out picking cotton today. If they realized what he meant to golf, they’d get down and kiss his feet.’
So when you read in the golf press that the demise of Woods as the dominant force in world golf has set the game back, and that the game may never fully recover, remember that before Woods there was Palmer, inspiring others to play and driving prize money into the stratosphere.
Whilst global golfing forces such as these men do not come along very often, they invariably come along. So may we all offer very many thanks to you Mr. Palmer, and send our wishes for lots more happy birthdays to come.