An audience with Arnold Palmer

Golf News

On the eve of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, NCG revisits Dan Murphy's 2013 interview with the now late Palmer

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 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.

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