A Golden Moment For Golf's Anointed King
Former U.S. Amateur champions join Palmer At Turning Point Invitational To Commemorate His 1954 Triumph
September 1 , 2004
By Ken Klavon, USGA
Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. - So now it can be revealed.
Arnold Palmer, the legendary golfer and master storyteller, leaned forward on the elevated dais in the Country Club of Detroit's aged Great Hall Aug. 29 and promulgated to the entranced onlookers something they couldn't have possibly heard before.
||Fans of Arnold Palmer flocked to the C.C. of Detroit on Aug. 30 to see the King participate in the Turning Point Invitational, a charity golf outing to honor the 50th anniversary of his U.S. Amateur victory at the club. (John Mummert/USGA)
Because, according to the record book, it defied what the faded ink says, providing the fulcrum to a changed history no matter how trifling the declaration.
Entering the 36th and final hole of his historic 1954 U.S. Amateur victory at the club, Palmer had held a 1-up lead on 43-year-old Bob Sweeny, who was almost twice his age. Palmer, then a 24-year-old paint salesman from Latrobe, Pa., placed his drive dead center in the fairway; Sweeny mistakenly hit a fade that would end up in the right fescue behind two trees.
"Walking side by side to our next shots," said Palmer, "and Bob said, 'Congratulations, you win.' He had conceded. We decided to play out the hole.
"On the 18th green, then USGA Executive Director Joe Dey said, 'Arnie, if you don't mind, we'll call this a 1-up victory.' I said, 'Joe, I don't care what you call this.'"
To no one's knowledge in the room, it had never been known that Sweeny conceded. It was one of the many delicious stories that kicked off a colossal two-day gala in which Palmer was feted on the 50th anniversary of what he calls his "most important victory of golf."
In an unprecedented move over the championship's 109-year history, 27 past U.S. Amateur champions, along with the USGA's help, gathered together to join Palmer at the Turning Point Invitational. It was part celebration of the anniversary and part fund-raiser to benefit the Cornerstone Schools of Detroit. More than $6 million was raised from the Aug. 29 dinner and golf outing (format was best two balls out of the fivesome) with amateur partners grouped with one of the champions on Aug. 30. Ryan Moore, the 2004 U.S. Amateur champion, posted the low round with a 67.
It was more than that, though. Forever a charismatic sort, Palmer was constantly greeted by old acquaintances. Some he hadn't seen in years, like the 65-year-old Jimmy Gill who had caddied for him in 1954, or one of the National Hockey League's greatest players, Gordie Howe.
The club honored Palmer with a plaque commemorating the victory, a book about the premises and the Turning Point Invitational Trophy. It featured a pewter likeness of a book-reading Palmer sitting on a bench flanked on each side by a boy and girl. Golf clubs rested next to the bench.
Lastly, Country Club of Detroit Immediate Past President Robert Thibodeau Jr. awarded Palmer with the 107-year-old club's first-ever honorary membership.
"You mean I can come and play golf here any time?" said Palmer to laughs before embarking on more memories of '54, the second of two Amateurs held on the 260-acred land. (The other Amateur was played in 1915). "Well, I thought I was pretty good [then], but I wasn't positive. The good news is it happened here in Detroit at the club - our club."
At that point in Palmer's career, he come to a crossroads with regard to his golf. He was employed as a paint salesman in Cleveland, seven months after he had gotten out of the U.S. Coast Guard. A couple of weeks before the Amateur, he had won his first big tournament, that being the well-renowned but now defunct All-American at Tam O'Shanter in Chicago. He knew that the All-American was a fine feather in his cap, but the U.S. Amateur, if he could win, would put his name on the golfing map.
But he didn't enter the championship's final as the favorite. Sweeny was more polished, evidenced by his 1937 victory in the British Amateur. An article in the Sept. 6, 1954, issue of Sports Illustrated said: "[The] Amateur was a scenario writer's dream come true: it brought together a 'graying millionaire playboy who is a celebrity on two continents' and 'a tanned, muscular young salesman from Cleveland who literally grew up on a golf course' and pitted them against each other in 'a battle of classes.' "
Gill, who kept score on Aug. 30 for Palmer's group, said: "Back then the Amateur was really a prestige event. It was big. That was probably one of the biggest events going back then."
Palmer painted a vivid picture of that Aug. 28 match 50 years ago. The most compelling memory that has stuck with him for years came on the fourth hole, when he fell 3 down.
"I remember on the fourth hole, Sweeny was four steps ahead of me while we were walking and I'm thinking, 'What is happening to me?'" said Palmer. "Then there was this girl, you could say a very pretty girl, who ran out to me. I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm getting the [heck] beat out of me, but at least I'll get the girl."
When he triumphed over Sweeny, he couldn't have imagined then how many lives he would touch. He eventually made television pay attention, all the while growing into the role of golf ambassador.
More important, the victory trumpeted the USGA's significance to the game and its dedication to the amateur levels.
"I think [the U.S. Amateur] is one of the most important amateur events in the world," said Palmer, a longtime national chairman for the USGA's Members Program. "I feel deeply happy. I can't tell you how important it is to have this event."
The glitzy dinner, attended by more than 2,000 people in a tent larger than a football field, had the feel of a Hollywood award ceremony yet fell a smidgen short on being superfluous. Palmer entered on a long red carpet with fiancee Kit Gawthrop, sister Sandy Sarni and her husband, Vin Sarni, in tow.
Students from the four Cornerstone Schools helped emcee the festivities in between the music and dancing, all of which could be seen on several big-screen televisions. After the dinner, 1975 U.S. Amateur winner and current USGA President Fred Ridley introduced each past champion, the likes of whom included Lanny Wadkins (1970), Mark O'Meara (1979), Jay Sigel (1982, '83), Phil Mickelson (1990) and the most recent victor, Ryan Moore.
There was no other way to describe the scene as overpowering, according to sis and Palmer.
"It puts a lump in my throat," said Sandy Sarni, who has watched the public embrace her brother through the years. "It never fails to thrill me."
In late July at the U.S. Senior Open, the modest Palmer couldn't understand why the Country Club of Detroit was making such a fuss. He had no idea then what to expect, but came across as genuinely touched when the event began on Aug. 29.
"This is pretty overwhelming," he said. "I am totally flattered and honored to be here."
For the champions who attended, busy schedules were considered minutiae. To attend this event was a no-brainer. The trail-blazing Palmer had transcended golf with his down-to-earth demeanor and made an impression on all of them in some capacity.
The bouquet of compliments was endless.
For David Gossett, a 9-and-8 winner over Sung Yoon Kim in 1999, he recognized the torch Palmer carried through the years for the betterment of the game made a difference.
"First and foremost, I have so much respect for Mr. Palmer and what he has done and how he has been a tremendous ambassador for the game of golf and life in general," said Gossett. "Being an Amateur champion, it's an honor to be amongst this group."
A bleary-eyed Sigel flew cross country from Portland, Ore. Palmer, a Wake Forest alum, had been instrumental in convincing Sigel to go there. Sigel became the first recipient of the Arnold Palmer Scholarship, which had been named after Buddy Worsham.
"It says a lot about what guys think of Arnold, the USGA and charity," said Sigel, one of five golfers to win two USGA events in the same year.
Said Ridley: "I think it's a very unique circumstance; close to 30 winners of past championships coming together toward one goal. It speaks a lot of how people feel about Arnold Palmer."
At the 1994 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, Mickelson was spellbound by Palmer's graciousness toward fans, officials and volunteers. He learned then what it meant to be a pro. That happened to be Palmer's last appearance at the U.S. Open.
|Phil Mickelson, the 1990 U.S. Amateur champion, has always admired the way Arnold Palmer interacted with golf fans and has tried to pattern his personality on and off the course to that of the King. (John Mummert/USGA)
"Arnold is the epitome of what we try to emulate ourselves after as professional golfers -- the way he treats people, the way he carries himself about with class and charisma," said Mickelson. "I've heard many times in the practice rounds how critical this event, the U.S. Amateur in 1954 was, and I've heard him talk about this golf course."
O'Meara took it a step further, crediting Palmer for the successes he's had over his career. Had Palmer not come along, he's not sure golf would be as popular as it is today.
Palmer has stated in the past that the Amateur was the turning point in his illustrious career. O'Meara felt the same, but added that being a champion forges a bond with others.
"Arnold has meant so much to all of us," said O'Meara. "We realize because of him some of us have had so much success in the game and we're not afraid to give back. Winning the Amateur was the highlight of our careers at the time, for most of us.
"Being a champion is very special to all of us. Last week Ryan Moore wins the Amateur at Winged Foot. We keep track of who's doing well, who's winning the championship."
Prior to the two-ball invitational on Aug. 30, the 27 champions again shared a room, this time for a formal photo. Shirts were tucked neatly into pants, ties adjusted and players were positioned and repositioned. Steve Melnyk (1969) took the vacant spot of 1965 winner Bob Murphy, who was a last-minute cancellation. John Fought (1977) and Bruce Fleisher (1968) switched places to better accommodate Fleisher's lanky 6-foot-3 frame.
Moore was seated next to Palmer, perhaps signifying bookends between Palmer's victory 50 years past and Moore's recent win.
To kill the monotony, light banter prevailed.
"Billy, what year did you win?" said Mickelson, playfully jabbing at 1987 champion Billy Mayfair.
Ricky Barnes, 2002 champion, sat on a stool trying to perfect a goofy smile that would never be seen by the lens when it counted.
Last but not least, Palmer stood in the back laughing at nothing in particular until Ridley good-humoredly blurted out, "Arnold, we're waiting for you ."
Palmer smiled, threw his arms up and retreated to his place next to Moore.
||U.S. Amateur champions Ricky Barnes (2002), left foreground, Nick Flanagan (2003), right foreground, Hank Kuehne (1998), left background, and David Gossett (1999) were on hand to support Arnold Palmer and participate in the Turning Point Invitational. (John Mummert/USGA)
The repartee didn't lose steam as the players moved to the practice range. When Palmer took his place next to Moore while he was warming up the gallery cheered. Moore quipped, "It's not fair," before flubbing a shot. "Looking good, huh?"
"At least you made contact," said Palmer.
Several minutes later, when everyone departed for the shotgun start, Palmer was left behind with fewer eyes on him. Suddenly, out of thin air, Howe snuck up from behind. Here they were, The King of Golf and Mr. Hockey together, shaking hands and reminiscing.
In the 1950s, Howe, Baseball Hall of Famer Al Kaline and Palmer used to tee it up. On this day Mr. Hockey, the athlete who defined longevity, was most amazed at Palmer's durability through the years.
"He showed me a couple of things when we golfed. That was in the 1950s," said Howe. "He was . a nice guy then. He moves pretty quick still. He's like a magnet. He senses people coming and just says hello to everyone."
Soon after, a specially-commissioned trumpet trio blasted out a medieval tune on the first teeing ground. The King of Golf was being summoned to the place that jump-started his career.
Seventeen holes later, the champions and a swarming gallery followed Palmer up the 18th fairway.
Arnie's Army, born at the '54 Amateur, was alive and well.
Ken Klavon is the USGA Web Editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at email@example.com .