Revisit NCG's interview with the now late Arnold Palmer from 2013, when Dan Murphy met the King at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge
This interview with Arnold Palmer originally appeared in National Club Golfer magazine and on NationalClubGolfer.com in 2013.
“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 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 10.30.
“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.”
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 Oakmonts, 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.
“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.