No golf venue in America has hosted more USGA championships than Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., which next week welcomes its fifth U.S. Open and 18th USGA championship.
Some great names have triumphed at Merion – from Bob Jones to Ben Hogan to Lee Trevino – but one name conspicuously absent from that roster is Pennsylvania native Arnold Palmer. However, nearly 50 years ago, not long after he won his fourth Masters in 1964, Palmer did participate in a memorable victory with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one that still brings a smile to The King’s face.
The occasion was a charity event that benefited the Heart Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Palmer and Eisenhower, who had met in 1958 and had become close friends, were paired in an alternate-shot competition with another Masters winner, Jimmy Demaret, and comedian Ray Bolger.
While nearly every U.S. president since William Howard Taft in the early 20th century has been an enthusiastic golfer, Eisenhower, the five-star general who served as commander in chief from 1953-61, is credited with helping to change the perception of golf among the American electorate. His term just happened to coincide with golf’s sudden popularity, thanks in large part to the arrival of the charismatic Palmer.
Eisenhower never tried to hide his near obsession with the game. It has been written that as soon as he awoke in the morning, Ike grabbed his wedge and practiced his swing, and he was known to swing a club while dictating letters to his secretary. A portion of the wooden floorboards in the Oval Office is pocked with spike marks, thanks to Ike. And just a month after taking office in 1953, Eisenhower became the first president to use the South Lawn of the White House for a practice range to hit pitch and chip shots. A year later, with the help of the USGA’s Green Section, a practice putting green of about 3,000 square feet, accompanied by a bunker, was installed about 50 paces from the Oval Office.Nevertheless, Ike, who played to about a 15 handicap, insisted on privacy when it came to his golf and the scores he posted, and he seldom allowed observers, let alone members of the press. As a result, the event at Merion is believed to be his only known public golf exhibition.
Palmer and Eisenhower, who first met in 1958 at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa., not far from Palmer’s hometown of Latrobe, were close friends until Eisenhower’s passing in 1969. They played golf together soon after Palmer won the 1960 Masters, and frequently thereafter. Ike even surprised Arnie by showing up in Latrobe for Palmer’s 37th birthday party.
In his book, “A Golfer’s Life,” Palmer wrote this about Eisenhower: “After that first encounter at Augusta in 1960, our meetings on the golf course became more frequent and our playing companionship deepened into a genuine friendship that, for me at least, eclipsed any relationship I’d ever had with an older man besides my father. He loved to hear me talk about tour life, and I loved to hear him reminisce about his wartime experiences and reflect on current events.”
Palmer would go on to write that he “loved [Eisenhower] like a second father.”
A large gallery showed up at Merion for the exhibition match, according to Don Van Natta in his book, “First Off The Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush.”
“It was supposed to be just a fun day, but the president really wanted to win, too,” Palmer, 83, recalled recently. “We had a conversation in the first fairway about strategy, in fact, because we were going to go out there and win, and I wanted to win for him with all those people there supporting what we were doing.”
Under the match format, both players drove from the tee, and after selecting a drive, they played alternate-shot until holing out. Merion’s opening hole is a slight dogleg right, uphill, and Eisenhower, who fought a slice from the day he picked up the game, striped his first tee shot about 220 yards up the fairway.
“Hustler,” Bolger yelled, keeping on his comedian’s hat.
Palmer then banged his drive much closer to the green. He remembered the conversation that ensued as they walked to their drives.
“I hit my tee shot, and Ike hit one, and we walked down, and I thought that he would play my shot up to the green,” Palmer explained. “It was up pretty close to the green. And he said, ‘Arnie, I’ll hit your shot to the green,’ and I said, ‘That's fine.’ We got to talking about it, and I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re a good putter; why don’t you let me hit your shot to the green?’ And I remember him smiling.”
Ike’s drive was good enough that Palmer needed only a 6-iron to put the ball on the putting surface.
“I hit his shot on the green,” Palmer said, “and it was about 15-18 feet from the hole, and he had a [Spalding] Cash-In putter, and I remember him putting it in the hole. You can't imagine the joy he got out of that. He just really thoroughly enjoyed that. And the day from then on was really a very enjoyable day and a very successful exhibition.”
There were other highlights, mostly by Ike. He nearly chipped in on the eighth hole for a birdie, and on the 17th, he sank a 45-foot birdie putt – after he and Palmer had already closed out the match on 16. Eisenhower was so focused and determined that he chose to delay arrival at a speaking engagement and dinner at the nearby Valley Forge Military Academy so he could play all 18 holes.
When it was over, Golf Magazine reported that, “Eisenhower beamed like a boy with a new bicycle.”
“If he had started golf a little sooner than he did, he would have been a really good player,” Palmer said. “He enjoyed the competition. He enjoyed the things that happened in his golfing career, and we played a number of exhibitions together for the Heart Association, for the Heart Fund, which was his charity.”
Palmer still has a picture from that day. “It’s one of the great pictures we have together,” he said. He remembers the day well, even if it wasn’t as monumental as his 1960 U.S. Open win or any of his other 61 PGA Tour victories.
“It was a fun day, and something that remains a very nice memory for me,” he said. “He played great and we won and we raised a lot of money. You know, he was always happy on the golf course, but that day I know he enjoyed as much or more than most.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to USGA websites.