I have worked for Arnold Palmer for nearly 46 years, enjoying a right-hand seat to one of the greatest journeys in American sports. But before I went to work for Arnold, I spent five seasons as the PGA Tour’s press secretary, a tenure that began 50 years ago.
Those were golden years in the Tour’s storied history, a period when golf’s Big Three – Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – dominated the scene, and a combination of circumstances spurred the tremendous growth that the game has experienced in the following half century.
The PGA Tour was quite different in those days. When I arrived at the San Diego Open in the winter of 1962, the Tour was still an arm of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America, an organization made up primarily of professionals who ran the golf operations of private clubs and public courses. (The PGA Tour became a separate entity before the end of that decade.)
In those days prior to a qualifying tournament and a developmental tour, a young man had only to get certification of ability from his home PGA section and the approval of the national officers to earn full playing privileges. The first Q School convened in 1965, and the Nationwide Tour began in 1990.
That first year was full of challenges for an ex-sportswriter who had worked at the Pittsburgh Press in the hulking shadow of Bob Drum, already known as Palmer’s Boswell. In fact, I was in San Diego as press secretary partly because Drum had gruffly warned me: “If you don’t take that job, I’ll never speak to you again.” I didn’t dare decline.
At the beginning of the year, the half dozen members of the Tour’s field staff received new cars; my trunk became my office. That first year, the season ran back and forth across the country from January to December, with 50 tournaments on courses ranging from excellent – Augusta National, Oakmont, Pebble Beach – to mediocre at best. We visited big cities like Los Angeles and small towns like Burneyville, Okla., home of the Waco Turner Open, one of 14 tournaments with a total purse of $20,000 or less. That’s why it took 12 seasons and 50 victories for Palmer to become the first man to win $1 million on Tour.
I set up and operated the press rooms at 34 events that year, when the practice of bringing the leaders to the media for interviews was just getting started. In that age of primitive communication, it was particularly difficult to get in touch with leaders at the event in Palm Springs, Calif., where the field was spread over four courses, and at the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, with its three-course format.
I almost blew my job at Pebble, during my second week. Doug Ford tied Joe Campbell and quickly beat him in a playoff on the 18th hole at Pebble Beach. Soon Doug, who always moved fast, climbed into his car and was headed for the next stop in San Francisco. I dashed between buildings, flagged him down and pleadingly talked him into visiting with the media before leaving town.
The next week wasn’t much easier. After winning the Lucky International at Harding Park, Gene Littler gave us about 10 minutes before he had to rush to catch a plane.
Providing printed details about leaders’ and winners’ rounds, a service that had started just a few years earlier, often was a problem. At some stops, we had to cut stencils on a typewriter and run them off on a mimeograph machine. Or quickly type some notes and print them on primitive copy machines, one type of which produced illegible pages if there was excessive moisture in the air. One of those contraptions turned out black copies much of the time while we were housed in a humid room for the New Orleans Open.
Trailers, card rooms, corners of ballrooms, cart barns, women’s locker rooms and even a former coal cellar served as makeshift press rooms. Occasionally, we sat in a flimsy tent sitting on a hill near the clubhouse.
Every week, I would pack my belongings into the car and make jumps such as Tucson to New Orleans or Akron to Denver. During one particular leg, I motored across West Texas, switching radio stations to keep tabs on John Glenn’s historic orbit of Earth.
Radio and television were becoming commonplace at tournaments, posing a bit of an adjustment for me. Because my background was in print journalism and most golf coverage in those days came from newspapers and magazines, I was inclined at first to favor the scribes during player interviews. But I quickly adjusted.
Nicklaus and I arrived on the Tour at the same time, and I was on hand for the first of his 70 Tour victories, the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club in a playoff over Palmer. Although I had yet to work for Palmer, the outcome was still a little disappointing for somebody who had covered him for years. I also witnessed Nicklaus’ back-to-back wins late in the season at Seattle and Portland, the latter despite a rare two-stroke penalty for slow play.
Those years bring other memories, like freak snow storms at Pebble Beach and players firing shots through freight cars with open doors at Pensacola Country Club, which had a rail line crossing the course.
I experienced a different side of Ben Hogan when he invited the out-of-town journalists covering the Colonial National Invitation to Shady Oaks Country Club, where he jovially told intriguing stories to the rapt audience during cocktail hour. It was a far cry from the dour personality usually attributed to the great man.
I remember so well sitting at the feet of an exhausted Ken Venturi between Saturday’s rounds of the 1964 U.S. Open, relaying his faint words to reporters crowded into a row of lockers at Congressional Country Club. I thought, erroneously as it turned out, that there was no way he would be able to play those last 18 holes.
Tony Lema was a particular favorite of mine. A personable guy who was on track to a great career when a plane crash took his life in 1966, Tony earned his big breakthrough in late 1962 at a small event in Southern California called the Orange County Open. He led after three rounds, and as he completed his interview with the handful of writers covering the event, Tony brandished a beer bottle and announced: “I’ll tell ya, if I win this thing tomorrow, we’ll have Champagne in here.”
After he won, I made sure through the club manager that we had enough Champagne for everybody. One of the stories the next day dubbed him “Champagne Tony,” and I repeated that nickname often enough to reporters around the country in the ensuing months that it stuck for the rest of Tony’s tragically shortened life.
So many more memories linger, and the most significant by far was a stroll through the grill room of Rio Pinar Country Club in March 1966 at the Florida Citrus Open, the predecessor to the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Palmer was sitting alone – a rarity – and summoned me over.
“Would you be interested in leaving the Tour and coming to work for me?” he asked. That was just the second job offer I had gotten – and definitely the last I expect to receive.
So that the Tour could find a replacement and give that person some weeks with me to get a feel for the job, Arnold agreed to delay my starting date until the PGA Championship, held at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Although that championship represented the start of a new, exciting venture, that date will always be bittersweet for me. Before I left Akron that Sunday night, word reached us that Tony Lema had died.
There have been other lows and plenty of highs since, along with plenty more memories from my decades with Palmer. There is no way I could have anticipated my exciting, enriching life when, one day in the late 1950s, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Press told me to pick up the phone and take dictation from Drum to update his story about the West Penn Amateur.
That was my introduction to the coverage of the game that became my life’s work and pleasure. What good fortune that turned out to be.