Exclusive interview: An audience with Arnie (3/3)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 three of three.
“Certainly I like Brandt Snedeker – he’s good. He’s got a little different approach to the game. He’s quick and I think that’s particularly key today.”
Asked how different life on tour is now, Palmer cites a distance between the players that did not exist in his day.
“I think we were closer because we travelled together. Today everybody goes by airplane so they’re separated and in those days we travelled in caravans so that made it different.
“Jack and I never travelled together. He came along a little later too, he’s 10 or 11 years my junior.
“I used to take him on my airplane to tournaments occasionally, but that was a little different and that was getting closer to the modern era. Now, everybody flies.
“But when Dow and I started together we drove and travelled a lot together and we stayed in the same hotels and we rented houses together.”
Popular wherever he goes, Palmer has a special place in the hearts of British golf fans. He has not completely ruled out one more trip to the Home of Golf.
“I have a lot to do with St Andrews still, I love the course and the town.
“They want me to come over this year for the 600th anniversary but it’s a long way for me to go – I’m 83 now – so we’ll see.”
It is now 53 years since Palmer made his first trip to the Open Championship. It was the centenary Open and the venue was, fittingly, the Old Course. The then 30-year-old had to adjust quickly to the challenges it presents.
“Well, I suppose the proper language would be ‘surprised’ at St Andrews,” he says. “I had read a lot about it and knew quite a bit about it but much to my relief – and I say relief because it was scary to play St Andrews the first time and not know where any of the hazards were and the bunkers – I had Tip Anderson as my caddy and he was wonderful.
“He was the greatest.
“He knew everything and he could direct me. Without him I would have been lost.
“It would have taken me a lot longer to pick up where I did and play as well as I did.
“It took me a while before St Andrews became so special to me.
“It’s knowing where to hit the ball and using the memory that you have to direct you, to tell you where and to get into the ‘feel’ for the golf course.
“You can almost hit it away from where you think you should hit it to be in that safe position. And that was something I had never experienced.”
Did it come naturally?
“Yes, I picked it up. My only experience up until then was Portmarnock over in Dublin for the World Cup.
That was the first links course of that nature that I had ever played.
“I played with Sam Snead and we won the team but Flory van Donck – do you remember him ? – he won the tournament individually – he beat both of us, but we won the team. And that was my first experience.
“I played well there and I loved it. I loved the Irish and I loved the setting and the atmosphere and the environment and everything. That was fun.”
Palmer’s visit to that Open, and his commitment to returning each subsequent year, was largely responsible for re-instating the Open as a Major championship.
Where he led, the other Americans followed.
My father was a professional and from the time I can remember playing and competing he always said, ‘you know, Arnie, you’ve got to play internationally to be great’. So what made him take the time and the effort to travel to a strange land to play a style of golf he was unfamiliar with, against weaker fields than there were at home and for less prize-money, especially once the travel expenses had been factored in?
“My father was a professional and from the time I can remember playing and competing he always said, ’you know, Arnie, you’ve got to play internationally to be great’.
“And of course that sunk in. He was a very influential guy in his conversations and his feelings about the game and something that made it even more important to me was that the president of Latrobe CC, Harry Saxman, said: ‘Well if Arn’s going, you and I will go too’.
So he brought my father and they went to the Open at St Andrews with me, which was great.
“It was an excitement that set up my life for playing international golf.
“It’s very special to me that my father came to St Andrews with me. That’s important.”
Palmer would go on to win the Open twice, in consecutive years. First in 1961 at Birkdale then the following year at Troon, when he ran away from the field.
“The fairways at Troon are pretty humpbacked, they all go off, and I was hitting it good enough to keep it right in the middle and that gave me the opportunity to get a pretty good lead and keep it.
“It was somewhat a separate event. It was nice to go down the 18th and enjoy it and I love Troon.”
One of the by-products of Palmer popularising the Open was to encourage a generation of European players, a group which 20 years later would wrestle away America’s dominance of the Ryder Cup.
He not only doesn’t mind the effect he had in making Europe stronger (although, typically, he plays down his part), he cherishes the resurgence of America’s biennial opponents.
“When I went to Europe in ’60 one of my thoughts was to incite the Europeans to become more competitive and come here and play and get our guys over there and make it a more international kind of go-round. I didn’t realise I was going to be so successful.
“Because you see what has happened. And it was inevitable, whether I had done it or who had done it, it was going to happen, but that edged it on a little bit and made it happen sooner.”
So is Tom Watson the man to regain the Cup for America?
“Tom Watson will be great. He’s a great guy and he’s a good thinker so he will be the kind of captain you want.
“I’m not saying that he’ll absolutely win but I’d give him a pretty good chance.
“The match at Medinah was good for golf. It was a great match and I won’t say that I was overly surprised at what happened.”
As well as his two Opens, there were four Green Jackets. Much like Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros, it seemed these two Majors particularly suited his style, although that is not quite the way Palmer sees it.
“I don’t think so. I think any Major requires the coolness on top of playing under the pressure of that situation.
“If you look at the records you’ll see I could have won five (US) Opens very easily and that is something that disturbs me a little, the fact that I didn’t win them.
“But my approach was that I didn’t care what tournament it was I just wanted to win. I played a Cleveland Open just like it was a US Open.
“I suppose unfortunately, as I got older and played even better golf than I did when I was young, that if I’d had a little different psychological approach then I would have won more Opens than I did and I have said at times that had I not won the Open at Cherry Hills I might well have won two or three Opens but the satisfaction, psychologically, of having won the Open did something to my mental approach and the aspect of playing the Open. And I’ll stick with it!
“When you think of Oakmont, which was the one that was the most devastating to me to not win, in 62, I made a couple of major errors in that.
“It could well be a psychological effect. At nine I took four shots from the edge of the green and I three-putted 17 times and Nicklaus didn’t three-putt at all.”
The memories seem so vivid. I wonder if he ever re-visits them in his dreams, all those Major wins or perhaps even the near misses?
“No, I come up with new ones. I was playing a tournament the other day in my dream. I got to the 9th and I was doing pretty well and ready to go on the back nine in good shape in my dream and then I just walked off the course – in my dream!”
It is high time for him to get back to Kathleen on their anniversary. I thank him and apologise for our breakfast over-running. Unbelievably gracious, he either doesn’t mind or gives no indication of doing so.
“Thank you Mr Palmer,” I say. “That was a privilege.”
And I mean it.