Change your view of Arnold Palmer for a minute. Stop thinking of
him as an icon. Get past your sense of him as a rugged
individual, chiseled from anthracite and baptized in Pennzoil.
Picture him instead as just one of a group of guys--not a man
apart. Share his pleasure as he settles onto the seat of a golf
cart in the Florida sun, a Coke in one hand and a hot dog in the
"You eatin' hot dogs again?" The question comes from an old pal
rolling by in another cart.
"First one since I've been sick!" Palmer says, managing to chew
and beam at the same time. At 67 he radiates health and
contentment. Eight weeks after having his cancerous prostate
removed by surgeons at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, he's playing
golf and flashing the famous smile. As his buddies are quick to
testify, "He's still the same old Arnie."
He is. And, of course, he is not.
April 6, 1997
His good friend and dentist, Howdy Giles, chauffeured Palmer
around Orlando's Bay Hill Golf Club in late January, when the
golfer's outdoor activity was limited to putting and kibitzing.
"I'm with Arnold in the golf cart," Giles says, "and maybe 40
guys come up and say, 'Hey, Mr. Palmer, how ya' doin'?' When we
got back to the clubhouse, he said, 'It pisses me off. Before
the surgery they called me Arnie. Now it's Mr. Palmer.'"
Nobody dies from too much deference, but Palmer had a point. His
cancer seemed to be robbing others of their vitality. A sickroom
mentality froze smiles. "Arnold Palmer is the John Wayne of
golf," says Jim Deaton, Bay Hill's head pro. "You almost imagine
him with a six-shooter and a wide-brimmed hat. We wondered if
he'd come back with the same swagger."
Clearly Palmer faced a challenge. He needed to reassure
himself--and others--that a tiny gland could not bring down a
legend. He needed to regain his stamina. And he needed to
restore not just a golf swing but a persona.
He needed the Bay Hill Shootout.
Picture a club within a club. The Shootout is a subgroup of Bay
Hill's roughly 400 members, with a few dozen celebrities,
touring pros and ex officio stalwarts thrown in. For a lifetime
fee of $200, Shootout members gain entrance to a daily
tournament, along with an inexhaustible supply of bonhomie and
nonsense. When Palmer bought the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in
1969, he started the Shootout. But he still had to pay his $200
The Shootout's "commissioner" is Lee Havre, a retired car dealer
and banker from Ohio. A wiry character with a cola-colored mop
of air, Havre has lunch every day at 11 at a table in the Bay
Hill dining room, where he trades jibes with friends and dodges
questions about his age. ("Lee," a club member once said, "I'm
going to cut off one of your arms and count the rings.") Players
who want a spot in that day's Shootout, which usually begins
around noon, leave him messages or swing by his table. Havre
then retires to the starter's shack, by the 1st tee, and makes
up teams. Each team gets an A player (like Palmer or Tour
veteran Steve Lowery), a B player (a 75-to-80 shooter, like
Havre), and so on down to the D players, who shoot in the 90s.
Team scoring is by individual scores--no handicaps--or by
three-ball aggregate, with each player anteing up $30 to $50 for
the winners' pot. Side bets between individuals or partnerships
liven up the action and keep the little gray cells occupied.
The roster of regulars includes Tom (Two Beer) Bernier, Pete
(Zorro) Groux and Bob (the Hammer) Jack--an attorney whose knees
click like castanets and whose golf bag is decorated with the
scales of justice, tipped to the right. One player got his
nickname when Deaton, unable to pronounce the name off a list,
called out "Ron ... Alphabet?" Ron Azarewicz thrust his hand in
the air and said, "I'm here!" Now his bag tag reads RON
ALPHABET. Another regular, Dick Simmons, once missed a putt so
badly that an onlooker sniped, "Try to get it closer than Edward
Scissorhands." To his chagrin, Simmons is now stuck with the name.
"We're just a bunch of kids in grown-up bodies," says Jack. And
like most kids, they love their toys. The 14-club limit is
waived for Shootouts, and some players carry more hardware than
a True Value store. (Havre's bag recently choked on eight
Callaway metal woods, 12 Top-Flite irons, a putter and an orange
ball retriever.) In the same spirit of excess, wrinkled golf
gloves dangle like Tibetan prayer flags from the roof supports
of their carts.
It was to this temple of male bonding that Palmer hastened after
his January surgery. In the early days of his recovery, when
swinging a club was forbidden, he followed Shootout matches in
his cart, snapping eight-frame-per-second sequence photos with
his new Nikon F-5 camera, which he purchased from Nikon vice
president John Clouse. ("That camera's meant for professionals,"
pointed out Giles, an accomplished photographer. "Well, I'm a
professional," deadpanned Palmer.) By late January, Palmer could
leave the cart for short walks and practice his chipping with
the banter of his buddies in the background.
On Tuesday, Feb. 25, the waiting ended. Palmer told the commish
that he was ready, and Havre--who shares Palmer's birthday of
Sept. 10 and who, coincidentally, had his own prostate removed
eight years ago--wrote "A. Palmer" on the pairing sheet. Palmer
shot 80 his first time out, and although the score was not
released, word of his return spread around the world through the
media. Within days he had fired a pair of 70s over the familiar
Bay Hill layout.
Most of his rounds, though, were sloppier, with spells of weak
hitting and aimless putting. "I don't know if I'm tired or my
brain just goes out," Palmer said in mid-March, walking down the
3rd fairway. His caddie, Mike Sturgill, cruised the right side
of the hole in a cart laden with two green staff bags and 40 or
50 clubs. "I ask the doctors about it," Palmer went on, "and
they say, 'Be patient.' But they say that about everything."
On the practice range that day Palmer seemed almost nostalgic.
He hit long irons and watched the balls draw toward the target,
as remembered, and then drop 15 yards short. "Not a lot of steam
in them anymore," he said, sighing deeply.
"The steam will come back," said George Nichols, chairman of the
Arnold Palmer Golf Company.
A couple of swings later Palmer got his body through the ball,
and the shot pleased in the remembered way, dropping far down
the range. "There it is, George," he said. "There it is."
Palmer's friends were used to his swing moods (not to be
confused with his mood swings). When he returned to his Bay Hill
condo last fall, after a summer of pallid competition at his
home in Latrobe, Pa., Palmer found himself being outdriven
consistently by Shootout rivals such as Bill Damron, father of
Tour rookie Robert Damron. And never mind that Damron was doing
it with an overlength driver that couldn't fit sideways in a
pickup truck. "I don't like to be outdriven, even if it's by
John Daly," Palmer told Deaton. "It bothers me."
"You could see the determination in his face," recalls Deaton.
Focusing on his legs and his shoulder turn, Palmer added
flexibility exercises to his already vigorous workout program.
"And within a week," Deaton says, "he was hitting it noticeably
So competitive is Palmer that it matters little to him whom he's
playing. Payne Stewart, who lives nearby and sometimes plays in
the Shootout, brings a gleam to Palmer's eye, but so does a
cackling contractor with a deep tan and a pale left hand. "This
is good for me," Palmer says. "There are so many good players at
Bay Hill that you can always find someone as good as you are."
Palmer's caddie puts it more strongly. Watching his boss crack
up with laughter over something said on the 6th tee, Sturgill
says, "This is more important to him than being on tour. He
loves these people."
They love him back, of course.
By early March, Palmer was certain he would be strong enough to
play in next week's Masters, extending a string of appearances
unbroken since 1955. He was almost as confident that he could
play in the Bay Hill Invitational, the Tour event he hosts every
March. "Look out, Tiger Woods!" he crowed, watching a practice
putt curl toward the heels of Sturgill's toed-out feet.
Palmer's Shootout pals saw his comeback in a different light.
They were less concerned with what Arnie was scoring than with
what he was saying. They studied, not his spine angle at
address, but his posture in moments of reflection. And as far as
they could tell, Palmer's comeback was well ahead of schedule.
He had resumed part of his exercise routine, which includes 300
to 500 stomach crunches before breakfast. He was back behind his
desk every morning, answering correspondence and making business
decisions. He filmed a Pennzoil commercial one morning, made a
cancer-awareness spot the next. He asked a staffer to rent a
helicopter for a quick jump to a golf resort near Tampa so he
could look in on his Arnold Palmer Golf Academy. ("You can go
with me," he joked. "That way I know you'll get a good
helicopter.") Palmer swore to his friends, as he has for years,
that he intended to slow down. "I'm really going to this time,"
he told Havre. "I'm going to play golf every day. I'm going to
go to the movies when I want to."
"But I haven't seen any signs of it," Havre says with a snort.
"He hasn't changed. Never will change."
Palmer's vitality is of more than passing interest at the Bay
Hill Lodge, where the likelihood that resort guests will see
Arnie is a bigger selling point than the speed of the greens.
Framed photographs and paintings of the King hang everywhere,
and Palmer memorabilia fill display cases. It's common for a 20
handicapper on the range to find himself practicing alongside a
man who has won four green jackets, two claret jugs, a U.S. Open
and 60 Tour events.
The Shootout guys are no less awestruck. Says Deaton, "Even
though they're used to him, there's a change in the electricity
when he's here."
Recognizing the effect Palmer has on people, Havre judiciously
juggles the pairings. Sometimes it's to please Palmer, who may
request that he be teamed with a visiting friend or celebrity.
Just as often, golf with Arnie is arranged for sentimental
reasons. Havre recently paired Palmer with 29-year-old Patrick
Sugrue, a Bay Hill assistant pro who caddied for Palmer at last
year's Bay Hill Invitational. "I never thought I'd get to play
with Mr. Palmer," said Sugrue, following the older golfer's
every move with the eyes of an acolyte. In the same group, but
from the opposite end of the age and power scale, Sprint
Telecommunications executive Don Poynter echoed Sugrue's
enthusiasm. Yes, Poynter confirmed, he was recovering from five
mild heart attacks, open-heart surgery and the recent
replacement of a toe joint--but the sun was shining, the grass
was springy underfoot, and he was playing golf with Arnold
Palmer. Poynter grinned. "You don't think I've died and gone to
Two weeks before the Bay Hill Invitational, this theme of grown
men chasing ecstasy on borrowed time turned intense. Havre
paired Arnie with 37-year-old Jay Williams, an insurance agent
who had recently had a seizure and collapsed at the Bay Hill
pool. In four days, Havre told Palmer, Williams would have a
malignant brain tumor removed. Thinking optimistically, Williams
had gone to Circuit City that very morning and bought a 60-inch
television. During his convalescence, he planned to watch the
NCAA basketball tournament and Palmer's return to tournament golf.
"What a group!" Palmer said, walking up to Williams and the rest
of his team on the 1st tee. "I've got two sick guys"--he counted
himself--"and I don't know about the other two." That produced
grins, none bigger than Williams's, and set the tone. A half
hour later, walking off the 4th green with a birdie, Williams
was practically floating. "It doesn't get any better than this,"
he said in poignant parody of the beer commercial. Watching
Palmer stride back to the blue markers on number 5, Williams
added, "That is probably the finest human being on the face of
To be human, alas, is to be frail--less durable than a silly
nickname or a silver trophy. In his Shootout rounds Palmer
stopped from time to time to observe the water turkeys on a pond
or to stare up at an interesting aircraft, following the white
fuselage across the blue ceiling until it dwindled to a dot and
vanished. "We think we're indestructible, but we aren't," he
That's something Palmer's fans should keep in mind next week as
he walks in the shadows of Augusta's tall pines. The hills will
be steeper than he remembers, and the greens a little too fast
for his old nerves. But the bigger tests--the challenges of
restoration and reconnection--he has already met in the company
"You think I can hit Finsterwald?" he asked one morning. Palmer
stood on the clubhouse end of the range, a driver in his hand,
and stared at his old Tour rival, Dow Finsterwald, warming up at
the opposite end, 320 yards away. Palmer turned to his
entourage, grinning mischievously. "I'd love to bounce one in
Mr. Palmer was nowhere in sight. But Arnie was back, and ready
to give it a rip.