Perhaps never again will there be a golfer with the universal appeal of Arnold Palmer. For more than a decade he has been a classic hero: bold, reckless, even foolhardy—traits that have cost him titles at times but have won him the admiration of the world. Who cares if the shot must go under a limb yet carry the pond? Go for it. Charge! On the tee he hammers at the ball the same way we do, straining to get every last yard out of it. Then he strides down the fairway, hitching at his pants, impatient to get on to the next shot. On the greens he agonizes over his putts and when they drop, his joy is unrestrained (right). Lately the moments of joy have been infrequent, and two weeks ago, after a disastrous opening round of 82 in the PGA, he withdrew from competitive golf to give his hip a rest. This month Arnold Palmer turns 40 (see cover), and so it seems appropriate to honor on the following pages this most photogenic of athletes—not to signal an end to the Age of Palmer, but to salute it.
'FANCY SEEING YOU HERE'
He first came to golf as a muscular young man who could not keep his shirttail in, who smoked a lot, perspired a lot and who hit the ball with all of the finesse of a dock worker lifting a crate of auto parts. Arnold Palmer did not play golf, we thought. He nailed up beams, reupholstered sofas, repaired air-conditioning units. Sure, he made birdies by the streaks in his eccentric way—driving through forests, lacing hooks around sharp corners, spewing wild slices over prodigious hills, and then, all hunched up and pigeon-toed, staring putts into the cups. But he made just as many bogeys in his stubborn way. Anyhow, a guy whose slacks are too long and turned up at the cuffs, who matches green shirts with orange sweaters and who sweats so much is not going to rush past the Gene Littlers, Ken Venturis and Dow Finsterwalds to fill the hero gap created by the further graying and balding of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. This is what most of us believed about 10 years ago, even after Palmer had won his first Masters, even after he had begun to drown everyone in money winnings. This was a stylish new godlet of the fairways, a guy out of Latrobe Dry Goods?
We were, of course, as wrong about him as the break on a downhill six-footer, as wrong as his method seemed to us to be wrong: hit it hard, go find it, hit it hard again. Then, one day, the bogeys suddenly went away, and Palmer became a winner like none we had ever known. He was a nice guy, of all things. He was honestly and naturally gracious, untemperamental, talkative, helpful and advising, unselfish of his time, marvelously good-humored; he had a special feeling for golf's history and he was honored by its traditions; and with all of this he remained the gut fighter we insisted he be, a man so willing to accept the agonies of pressure and the burdens of fame that for a few years we absolutely forgot that anyone else played the game he was dominating and changing.
He actually started being Arnold Palmer nine years ago this summer, a stupidly short time it seems. He became the Arnie of whoo-ha, go-get-'em Arnie on a searingly hot afternoon in Denver when, during the last round of the 1960 U.S. Open, he exploded from seven strokes and 14 players behind to win. Much has been written of how it was that day, of the epic 65 he shot, of the day that really made him, but not by anyone who had lunched with him, kidded him and then happily marched inside the ropes with him, scurrying after Cokes and furnishing cigarettes.
During lunch in a quiet corner of the Cherry Hills locker room before that round, Arnold talked of no one else who might win. All he was concerned about was Cherry Hills' first hole, a short par-4. It bugged him. He thought he could drive the green, but in the three previous rounds he had not done it.
"It really makes me hot," he said. "A man ought to drive that green."
"Why not?" I said. "It's only 346 yards through a ditch and a lot of high grass."
"If I drive that green I might shoot a hell of a score," he said. "I might even shoot a 65. What'll that bring?"
"About seventh place. You're too far back."
"That would be 280," Arnold said. "Doesn't 280 always win the Open?"
"Yeah, when Hogan shoots it," I said.
Arnold laughed and walked out to the tee.
For a while I loitered around the clubhouse waiting for the leaders to go out, as a good journalist should, but then I overheard a couple of fans talking about an amazing thing they had seen. Palmer had driven the first green. Just killed a low one that hung up there straight and then burned its way through the USGA trash and onto the putting surface. Got a two-putt birdie. I walked out on the veranda in time to catch a pretty good roar from down on the course. "Palmer's three under through three," said a man, sprinting by.
Like him and a few thousand others who got the same notion at the same time, I tried to break all records for the Cherry Hills Clubhouse-to-Fourth Fairway Dash. We got there just in time to see Arnold hole his fourth straight birdie. I staggered over to the fifth tee, ducked under the ropes as an armband permitted and stood there drenched, panting but excited like everybody else in the crowd.
Palmer came in briskly, squinted down the fairway and walked over. He took a Coke out of my hand, the cigarettes out of my shirt pocket and broke into a smile.
"Fancy seeing you here," he said. "Who's winning the Open?"
He birdied two more holes through the seventh to go six under, working on an incorrigible 29 out. But he bogeyed the eighth and had to settle for a 30. Even so, the challengers were falling all around him like wounded soldiers, and their crowds were bolting toward him, and the title would be his. Everything would be his now.
Later on, somewhere on the back nine, I remember sizing up a leader board with him and saying, "You've got it. They're all dying."
"Aw, maybe," he said, quietly. "But damn it, I wanted that 29."
There have been other major victories, as we know, and scores of lesser ones, and precisely because of him the tour has tripled, quadrupled in money. He has become, they say, something more than life-size, something immeasurable in champions, even though he is turning 40, the hip hurts, and the big ones are slipping away. If this is true, it is not because of what he has won but rather because of the pure, unmixed joy he brought to trying.
Hell, Arnold. Lately, you've even given a nobility to losing. So for all of us in the Army, I say happy 40th and thanks for those 1960s.
As Palmer's popularity grew during the early '60s, so did his galleries, and a new phrase entered golf's lexicon—Arnie's Army. Its members prayed for him when he was in trouble and rejoiced when he recovered. Nowhere was his Army more enthusiastic than at Augusta (above), and when Palmer missed the cut in 1968 (far left) it was as despondent as he.
In recent years, as Palmer's victories have become infrequent, his expression often registers his concern, but the Army has not lost faith, not even the Scottish regiment watching him at Carnoustie last year.
Now, plagued by a hip ailment and short putts that fail to drop, Palmer has dropped off the tour to rest and ponder his future.