The King Holds Court With USGA Members

By Ron Driscoll
January 20, 2011

Golf Channel's Gary Williams (left) moderated the question-and-answer session with Arnold Palmer on Jan. 17 at the USGA Member Education Series event held at Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge in Orlando, Fla. (John Mummert/USGA)

Orlando, Fla. – Halfway through his question-and-answer session Monday night with moderator Gary Williams of the Golf Channel, Arnold Palmer leaned over and told Williams mischievously, “I think I’m taking your show away from you.”

Williams, the host of Golf Channel’s new Morning Drive show, knew better: this evening belonged to “The King,” and no one minded that he was taking the Q&A and running with it, spinning off anecdotes and reminiscences for USGA Members and guests as part of the third USGA Member Education Series event, hosted by the Bay Hill Golf Club and Lodge, Palmer’s home in Orlando, Fla.

From the moment Palmer, 81, climbed the couple of stairs to the podium and joked, “I never thought it would be so hard to get up here… You older folks know what I’m talking about,” he had the audience of 125 nodding in agreement and laughing with approval. The group included a special guest, Dow Finsterwald, a longtime friend of Palmer’s who won the 1958 PGA Championship and also played on four U.S. Ryder Cup teams.

When one of the USGA Members asked him to recount a famous story, Palmer looked quickly to his wife, Kit, for approval, then dove in. “Some of my friends and I played here at Bay Hill years ago, and after we had a couple of beers, we went back out to play what we call the ‘Short Turn’: No. 10, and then 15 through 18. We were betting a little bit – you know, nickels and dimes – and we got to No. 17 [a par 3 over water].

“My caddie, Tomcat, told me to hit 3-iron, and I questioned it. He insisted that 3-iron was the club, and I hit it short, in the water. So I announced to the group that now I was going to hit a 2-iron and make a par. They all laughed, just like I would have laughed if one of them had said it. Well, I hit the 2-iron and it landed 15 feet short and rolled right into the hole – for a par 3. So now I was [peeved] at my caddie and I said, ‘See, it’s a 2-iron shot.’ And Tomcat says to me, ‘No sir, Mr. Palmer, it’s a 3-iron. You hit that 2-iron fat!’”

When Palmer was asked what he would have done if he hadn’t become a professional golfer, he said, tongue firmly in cheek, “I wasn’t smart enough to do many other things… I asked myself, ‘What could I do if I couldn’t play golf?’ There really wasn’t anything else.”

He went on to say that he could have seen himself as a golf course superintendent – his father, Deacon (Deke), was the longtime golf professional and greenkeeper at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club. And he told the crowd that he planned to complete his long avocation as a pilot later in January with a final flight, after 20,000 hours logged. “I’ve flown around the world,” he said. “I love aviation, so perhaps I would have gone into that as a career.”

Before the session with USGA Members, Palmer honored a request to pose for the first time with the three USGA trophies he has won: the U.S. Amateur (1954), the U.S. Open (1960) and the U.S. Senior Open (1981). Palmer is one of five golfers in history to have won three different USGA championships, and only Palmer and Jack Nicklaus have won the Amateur, Open and Senior Open titles.

Recalling the U.S. Amateur victory at the Country Club of Detroit, Palmer said, “I had won the All-American title earlier in the summer, but winning the Amateur meant everything to me. I felt I could handle the PGA Tour and compete with confidence. It ended up being my life and my future.”

And yet, like any golfer, Palmer recalled one that got away. When asked to describe his most memorable recovery shot, he answered with a question. “Does anyone here have a USGA Rules of Golf book? The picture on the cover is of me trying to play a shot off a tree stump in the 1963 U.S. Open at The Country Club [in Brookline, Mass.]. I made a triple-bogey 7 and lost the championship to Julius Boros in a playoff.”

As Williams discovered, Palmer keeps busy these days. When Williams told Palmer, “I have it on good authority that you were working out on the treadmill at 6:20 this morning,” Palmer corrected him. “Did they also tell you that I had already been there for half an hour?”

A few other gems from Palmer:

  • On his father, Deke: “From him, I learned integrity, honesty and straightforwardness – the bottom line was, ‘Just get it done.’ He was a nice guy, but he was tough.”
  • On the annual Masters champions dinner and who he gravitates to: “Jack Nicklaus. As competitive as we are – and we still work to outdo each other, except now it’s in business – the competition we have is something that I really appreciate. He is my friend.”
  • On his involvement in the launch of Golf Channel: “When my good friend Joe Gibbs told me about his idea for a golf network, I wondered, ‘Golf, 24 hours a day… even in the middle of the night?’ But we had lots of meetings about it and Joe convinced me, and of course, it’s been wonderful.”
  • On playing at St. Andrews: “I won the World Cup with Sam Snead in Ireland [in 1960], and then I lost to Kel Nagle by a shot in the British Open at St. Andrews. I think it cost me more to travel there than I won for finishing second. But my father insisted that if I was going to play, I needed to be able to play everywhere, because golf is a world game.” [Note: Palmer’s entry in the 1960 British Open almost singlehandedly put the championship back on the radar for American professionals, none of whom had competed in the 1959 British Open.]
  • On his relationship with the USGA: “Seeing the three trophies together makes me think about how important the USGA has been to me and to golf. I remember that the first USGA championship I competed in was at Oakmont, and in 1994 I played in my last one at Oakmont. I was very emotional. To all the Members of the USGA, the volunteers who work so diligently, I can’t thank them enough. You can talk about the PGA or the PGA Tour, but when you get down to the basics, the people in this room represent the USGA and the game of golf. You are the nucleus.”

And with that, “The King” was off the podium and on his way. “I’ve got to go walk my dog,” said Palmer as he headed for the door.

Ron Driscoll is the USGA’s copy editor. E-mail him with questions or comments at rdriscoll@usga.org. 

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