Exclusive interview: An audience with Arnold PalmerApril, 2013
Arnold Palmer is one of the most decorated and charismatic men to grace the game. Over breakfast at Bay Hill, we listened to his views on golf’s past, present and future. Part one of three.
“Let me have a couple of eggs over easy with a links sausage and wholewheat toast,” says Arnold Palmer to his favourite waitress at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge on the outskirts of Orlando in Florida.
“What is this – a fruity breakfast?” he adds, looking at my attempt to convince The King that the man sitting opposite him is also an elite golfer.
It is Saturday morning and the grill room is pleasantly busy, a mixture of members and residential guests, most of whom are preparing to play the championship course that hosts the PGA Tour in the Arnold Palmer Invitational each March.
Bay Hill is relaxed, classy, unstuffy and comfortable. Very much in The King’s image.
To say we are in Palmer’s backyard would be an under-statement. The seven-time Major champion owns the club and lives on the property, approximately one of his trademark long-iron shots away from the clubhouse.
Rare indeed is a day when the now 83 year old is not seen at the club, and of course this all seems perfectly natural to the staff who see him every day.
It is anything but normal to first-time visitors and starstruck guests who know he lives here and might of catching a glance of the great man but certainly don’t expect to see him wandering around on his way to and from breakfast or putting his shoes on in the locker room.
Although he does in fact own the place, he does not behave like it. The staff, many of whom have worked here for years, are hugely respectful in his presence yet also comfortable.
Speak to them and you learn how fond they are of him.
They are also good judges of when the best time is to ask for an autograph or a picture – they will even introduce you if you ask nicely.
We have all heard about Palmer’s legendary ability to make people feel at ease and give time to his ’Arnie’s Army’ of fans. I have now witnessed it for myself.
In the space of the hour or so I spend in his company I shake hands with no fewer than 31 people. The process goes like this: People spot him and stare, sidle over shyly, eventually approach the table, respectfully introduce themselves (it doesn’t seem to bother them if their hero has a mouthful of food at the time) and explain why it is that he means so much to them and how much they wanted to tell him so.
Mr Palmer, as he is to most, shakes their hands, introduces them to me, listens, smiles, asks them a question or two back and thanks them for coming to Bay Hill, as though they were doing him a favour.
They leave the table with broad grins, then the whole process is repeated within a couple of minutes. And he never tires of it.
According to his long-time friend Dicky Harris, who joins us for a slice of toast, he has never seen Palmer lose his patience with a genuine fan or autograph hunter in over 40 years.
I have no idea how he can manage a single morning being so consistently charming to every person he encounters.
Then again, he is clearly comfortable with the attention and likes company, otherwise he wouldn’t spend the majority of his time in the public – if upmarket – surroundings of his beloved club.
Now well into his 80s, Palmer’s hearing is not what it once was and my English accent hardly helps.
But when he smiles, as he often does, his face lights up, his eyes twinkle and he is instantly transformed into the swashbuckling superstar But when he smiles, as he often does, his face lights up, his eyes twinkle and he is instantly transformed into the swashbuckling superstar who rose from a humble upbringing in little-known Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to redefine the image of the professional game and become golf’s iconic figure.
Half a century later and he still is. The years may have passed but the magnetism is just as strong.
Among those who come across for a chat are former tour players, like Dicky Pride and Palmer’s closest friend, Dow Finsterwald, winner of the 1958 PGA, and twice third in the Masters.
Palmer and Finsterwald still play with and against each other several times a week.
“I’ve spent my life with him,” says Palmer, after Finsterwald has finished telling him how good his new TaylorMade irons are.
“We’ve been friends and partners since 19-, oh god, probably 60 years. We’re very close.”
At that point, a pair approach the table.
“Mr Palmer, I’d like you meet my friend Steve Scott, he was runner-up to Tiger at Pumpkin Ridge in the 1996 US Amateur,” he says.
“You lost to Tiger?” says Palmer. “A shame you didn’t win but you got a pretty good opponent there.”
“Well, at least I didn’t lose to a schlep,” deadpans Scott.
Today is Palmer’s eighth wedding anniversary to his second wife, Kathleen, and he receives a congratulatory call from his sister in California.
“I dumped my wife and I’m doing an interview as we speak,” he tells her with a grin. “This is international stuff.”
On this particular day, Palmer will not be getting his clubs out – “I told my wife I’d entertain her”, he says – but that is the exception to the norm.
“Some Saturdays they start a little early, at 10, for me,” he says. “Sometimes I’m not equipped to be ready to go. I’ll probably get a little later time like 1030.
“I don’t play most days any more. When I was working in business I used to play a little more often. I still play 18 when I play.”
“Practice is the one thing I do quite a bit. I’d much rather practice.”
The locker room at Bay Hill is a special place.
It is where the men go to play cards, talk and watch sport on television. It is more of a boys’ playroom than it is somewhere to change your shoes.
Palmer will often spend a couple of hours in there in the afternoon before ambling home to Kathleen, more often than not having taken the money.
On the course, the Bay Hill Shoot Out takes place every day.
Anyone can play – from tour players to high handicappers. The format is nett strokeplay and it’s $40 a man, winner takes all.
“Anywhere from about 10 to 40 or 50 play. It’s competitive and then we settle it in the locker room. That happens every day. A lot of action.”