Exclusive interview: We speak to The King (2/3)April, 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 two of three.
Does he remain as competitive now as he was in his prime in the 1950s and 60s?
“Oh no, no, I don’t, my game is going south, I don’t play like that, and we’re not playing competitive, but still.”
Needless to say, there is no standing on ceremony.
“Here at Bay Hill we have security people who keep it moving. We have a shoot-out every day and our goal is about four hours. If we can keep it at four hours we’re happy. Same thing at Pebble Beach. I’m on the committee there and we encourage the caddies and the players there to try to do their rounds in four hours or less.”
“One of the problems with the game of golf is slow play. And that’s what’s hurting the game.
“And if we can convince these young guys to be more like Snedeker, who plays fast, and guys like Rory, if we can get them to speed up and not play as slowly as they have been, it will help the game. It will improve the game.
“I don’t mean excessively fast – I think too fast is as bad as too slow. So we need to get that on the right kind of situation.
“It will encourage people to play. A lot of people are going away from the game simply because it takes too long.”
This is not, according to Palmer, a recent problem.
“I suppose it started around the Nicklaus era. Jack was not a real fast player.
“And as a matter of fact he got penalised a couple of times for slow play and I think that kind of set a pace early on and now we need to speed it back up and get it going.
“I think people watch the tour players and they try to example the tour guys and that’s one of the things we have to correct.”
One of the things?
“The ball needs to be slowed down. We need to set a standard for golf balls. Like we’ve set the grooves in the golf clubs, we’ve set the lengths, we’ve set everything – why not set the balls?
“Well, we have a standard but we need to slow the ball down. With new standards to slow it down.”
Just for the pros or everyone?
“For everyone. The per cent that they would slow it is going to effect the long hitters more than it is the short players.
“Slowing the ball will not have as dramatic an effect on the high-handicap players as it will the low-handicap players and I think that’s something that should happen really.
“Just to keep the golf courses that are so good – the Oakmost, the Pinehursts, the golf courses that we have known through the years, the Carnousties, the Turnberrys the Troons, the Birkdales. We need to keep them great golf courses as they are but we need to slow the ball to make that happen.”
If we ever separate the amateurs from the professional game and the rules separate that would have a tremendous effect on the game – to the detriment of the game. Fundamentally, Palmer does not believe in bifurcation – amateurs and pros should play by the same rules.
“Absolutely. If we ever separate the amateurs from the professional game and the rules separate that would have a tremendous effect on the game – to the detriment of the game. We really need to not have that happen.”
I wonder what he makes of the current ongoing controversy over long putters and anchoring. Have the USGA and R&A done a good job in regulating the game over the years?
“Yes. I’m very pleased that they’ve done that. I do not think the long putter, or anchoring as you call it, has a place in the game.
“I think the old pros and the old Scotsmen from way back would flip if they saw somebody putting a putter up under their chin.”
Has it taken them too long to act?
“I suppose. The right thing to do would have been to do it sooner than they did. They may have caused themselves more pain and anguish by waiting as long as they have.
“But I’m not sure that everybody recognised it as something that was going to happen so widely.
“And that’s going to take a little time to heal that hurt.”
Has he ever tried a long putter?
“Oh, I’ve practised with one. I didn’t give it enough time to really find out. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t really want to know if it worked because if it was legal I would have used it.”
The conversation turns to Tiger Woods, with whom Palmer has always been close.
You sense that the two men have a lot in common – certainly Palmer has been more sympathetic than many of the game’s influential voices in recent years.
I suspect he is grateful that in his day there was less prurience, less intrusion, and the relationship between players and the media was a more respectful one.
“When he gets going good he’s as good as ever,” insists Palmer, who says he has seen less of Tiger since he moved away from the Orlando area to a new home in Palm Beach.
I take the chance to ask him the burning question, whether Woods will ever match or even overtake Nicklaus’s record of 18 Major wins.
“I’m not going to say.” He pauses. “I don’t know.” He pauses again. “I think he has a chance.”
I suggest that it sounds like he thinks he will.
“Ha, ha, ha.” He stares away and thinks. “I don’t know – you’ve put me on the spot here a little bit. I’m going to pause on that.”
Actually, Palmer has great admiration for many of the current crop, and he follows them closely every week on the Golf Channel that he helped to found.
“Oh, I like them all. Certainly Rory is an outstanding young player of 22 years old.”
Does Rory remind him of himself at that age?
“Well, I don’t know, he’s much younger. I didn’t start until I was 25 and that makes a hell of a difference.
“Of course, Nicklaus was young when he started, and I think that’s an advantage. They can learn so much at an early age and that works pretty well.
“I think I learned on tour. But I was in the services for three years and college for four years and that is all a learning process. And when I got on tour I had some idea what to do, and I loved it.
“When I first started on tour I spent the better part of eight hours every day on the golf course. I would practice then play and then when I’d finished I’d practice more until dark.
“Rory is a very impressive young player. You know, he’s making some switches right now and we’ll see how he comes out. It’s going to be important.
“I think playing internationally is very important.
“And that means he’s going to play here and everywhere and I think that’s very important.