I fell for golf in its 1970s Sansabelt prime, as a teenager drawn to Ben Crenshaw and his blond mane, his long swing, his wife, who looked better than Farrah Fawcett. What a time: Big Jack was at his brainy peak, Tom Watson putted with a magic wand and Arnold Palmer was trotting the globe in his own plane. Golf was never better. That's my view, anyway, but first love can trick you.
Years later—in the throes of middle age—I traveled around the country, catching up with some of my heroes from yesteryear. I had an ideal traveling partner, my friend Mike Donald, a former touring pro who lost the 1990 U.S. Open in a playoff. I documented our adventure in a book called Men in Green. Arnold was our first stop, Jack our last, and the cover is a 1965 SI photo, Arnold and Jack, smiling at some secret joke and wearing sport coats given to them by the Augusta National Golf Club.
This year Arnold Palmer and Augusta National celebrate their 60th anniversary. Arnold played his first Masters in 1955 and his last in 2004, and he has been back every year since to play in the par-3 tournament and to see and be seen. He's 85 now, and in recent years he has hit a ceremonial Thursday-morning tee shot off the 1st at the National. He won the Masters four times, and he's an iconic symbol of the tournament.
Actually, when you get right down to it, Arnold Palmer is an icon, period, in the penthouse of the American Pantheon Building, along with Warren Buffett and Magic Johnson and not many others. What a trip he took to get there. For a working-class kid from a small town in western Pennsylvania, playing a niche sport for next to no money? It's astounding, really. And it makes you wonder: How did he do it? What were the qualities of the man that allowed him to make that journey? In the course of my MIG travels, over nearly two years, I saw the man a half-dozen times or more and, with his generous help, tried to find the man behind the icon.
One day Arnold told me about his dreams. A quarter of them are about golf, he said. Another quarter are about business interests. A third quarter are about flying. I asked about the remaining fourth. "Other," Arnold said. The secret dreams of Arnold Palmer. Your best guess is good enough.
On our tour Mike and I saw an impressive collection of golfing greats, some famous, some I called "secret legends." Ken Venturi and Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president. Curtis Strange and Dolphus (Golf Ball) Hull, a veteran caddie in Jackson, Miss. Golf Ball's name for Arnold was Bull, for the steam that came out his nose in the early-morning cool. Golf Ball dreamed of caddying for the Bull, but he never did.
Shortly after the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, Mike and I drove across the Keystone State from my home in Philadelphia, bound for Latrobe. You've got to start somewhere, right?
ARNOLD CAN be a challenge to interview. He's been around forever, and he's been asked everything, and I knew we needed some luck. We needed Arnold on a day when he was in the mood.
We arrived early, and Doc Giffin, Arnold's longtime aide-de-camp, ushered us into Arnold's office, in a one-story, white-brick building that looks like the wings attached to the Augusta National clubhouse. He was wearing a brown plaid shirt and had a green sweater draped over his shoulders. He looked great, tanned and strong. He was sitting in a big brown-leather desk chair that did not dwarf him. He stood to shake our hands.
Mike and I sat in chairs in front of Arnold's desk, and Doc sat against a wall, under a portrait of Arnold's first wife, the late Winnie Palmer, her hair swooped like a 1960s Breck Girl. With an assist from Doc, we opened a door for Arnold marked 1954, and Arnold walked through it. His speech, right from the beginning, was slow and measured and precise.
He began with his win at the U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit in late August 1954. He was almost 25, a bachelor, an ex--Coast Guardsman, a Wake Forest dropout. He was living in Cleveland and selling paint. He came from a workingman's club nobody knew, and in the final he defeated a tall, slim member of the Long Island golf establishment. If you ever read Herbert Warren Wind's SI account of the event, you might detect a hint of class warfare.
From Detroit, Arnold took us to early September '54, a few days after his win in the Amateur, when he and three buddies made the 400-mile drive from Cleveland to the Shawnee Resort, on the Delaware River in eastern Pennsylvania. They went there to play in an amateur tournament over Labor Day weekend. Fred Waring, a celebrity bandleader and the inventor of the Waring blender, was the host. Upon arrival, Arnold met a 19-year-old Pembroke College student named Winnie Walzer of Coopersburg, Pa., daughter of Martin Walzer, an owner of a canned-foods business, and Mary Walzer, a schoolteacher.
"I met her on Tuesday morning, she and Dixie Waring, Fred's daughter, at the hotel at Shawnee," Arnold said. "They were coming down the stairs, and I was there registering. Somebody said, 'You want to meet a couple of good-looking girls?' And I said, 'Hell yes.' I was single. And they introduced me to Dixie and Winnie. It was my shot. I could take either one. They were both available."
Some of this story was vaguely familiar to me from Arnold's autobiography, A Golfer's Life. But this version was already a different version. It was unvarnished.
"So I said to Winnie, 'Why don't you come follow me?'
"She says, 'I can't follow you. We just met. I have to follow Uncle Fred.' That was the first day.
"The second day I told her again that she should follow me. So she did.
"My partner was Tommy—what was his name, guy from Detroit?—Tommy Sheehan. He was a good player. And we romped the field. We won going away. And Saturday night I said to Winnie at the banquet, 'Will you marry me?'
"She said, 'Well, can I have a few days?'
"I said, 'Not really. You better decide pretty quick.'
"And she said, 'Well, give me a day or two and let me talk to my parents.' "
Let's pause for a moment to let this sink in: He met the girl, all of 19, on a Tuesday. He proposed four days later. He was about to turn 25, and suddenly, after some years of not doing very much, he had an epic to-do list. Getting married was on it. Palmer got his yes a day after he asked, but it came with an asterisk.
"She said, 'My parents don't like the idea.'
"Her dad hated my ass. He said to her, 'You're going to marry a golf pro?' "
A few days after the Fred Waring tournament, Arnold borrowed money from his Cleveland gang and bought an engagement ring. Two months later he turned pro.
THERE WAS no good reason to think that Arnold could make money at it. He played muscular, slashing golf that was far more suited to match play, the amateur game, than the 72-hole stroke-play events the pros typically played. Still, the Wilson Sporting Goods Co. of Chicago was willing to put Arnold on its staff and give him Wilson Staff irons and a set of woods, a golf bag, boxes of mushy Wilson Staff balls, and to sign him to a modest deal. Arnold drove to Miami with his father to play in his first professional tournament, the Miami Open.
"And at the tournament I ran into a model that I knew from Chicago," Arnold said. "And she was a good-looking broad."
The phrase good-looking broad, by the way, does not appear in A Golfer's Life.
"I'm engaged now to Winnie. I was out with the model that evening, and I got back to the hotel where my dad was. And it was late.
"He said, 'Where in the hell have you been?'
"My father was tough. He was no patsy. And I told him I had run into this lady.
"My father says, 'Arnie, you're engaged. You make up your mind. Are you going to play the Tour? Are you going to quit screwing around? Where's your fiancée?'
"I said, 'She's in Coopersburg.'
"He said, 'Well, you get your ass up there and get her and get going on what you're going to do.'
"I said, 'What do you mean?'
"He says, 'You take the car and go get Winnie and decide what you want to do.'
"So I went to Coopersburg, and four days later I was married. We went to Washington, where my sister was, got a marriage license and got married. We came here for the holidays."
Christmas in Latrobe, 1954. Their honeymoon night was spent at a motel for truckers off the Breezewood exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
I asked Arnold about earlier girlfriends, if he had ever been close to getting married before meeting Winnie.
"Well I f----- a few," Arnold said. "But I never wanted to marry them."
Arnold was going off-script. He knew he was not portraying himself as a saint. But he was doing something better and more useful. He was telling a story that was actually believable. I think he wanted us to know, late in his day, the real story of when Arnie met Winnie. For our benefit, for yours, and for his too. You know what they say: The truth will set you free.
I was so struck by how he spoke. The words he used and the stories he told had not been pulverized by some corporate grinder. They were real. His golf ball was "that son of a bitch." The old pro Dutch Harrison, a gambler, got Arnold into a big-bucks pro-am and wanted a "kickback." The Hall of Famer Tommy Bolt "was so bad." A double-date fishing trip with Bolt and his wife, Shirley, ended with the two of them "throwing knives at each other" and Arnold saying to Winnie, "Babe, we gotta split." On the road out, they saw Bolt's own son "thumbing." Regarding the successful Latrobe lumberman for whom Palmer caddied as a kid: "I hung close." He called himself "dumber than a rock." (Fat chance.) When he made money in a Calcutta gambling game, he was "as happy as a dog going to a farting contest with six a-------." His great college friend Bud Worsham was a "bad drinker," and Arnold had to "pull him out of ditches." Arnold got his "ass kicked" on the course by so-and-so. He remembered Bobby Jones once telling him, "If I ever need an eight-foot putt for my life, you're going to putt it." For my life. They played for high stakes.
Mike and I were in a trance, listening to Arnold checking off all these old names. I knew most of them, and Mike knew every last one. Dick Mayer, Tommy Bolt, Billy Casper. Ky Laffoon, Porky Oliver. Gene Littler. Hogan and Nelson and Snead. The Worsham brothers and Skip Alexander. Ed Furgol. Harvie Ward. Fred Hawkins. Al Besselink. Mike and I once spent half a day with Besselink, a Tour star from the 1950s with a loaf of yellow hair. Bessie was a habitué of the South Florida golf scene but also well-known at the betting windows at Gulfstream and Hialeah. Mike had been quoting for years something Bessie told us that day: "Don't date no brokes."
"I'll never forget this," Arnold said. "Winnie and I are driving from Baton Rouge to Pensacola [Fla.]. We're watching the car in front of us. All of a sudden sparks are coming out of the back of that car. I'm watching. And I thought, I'm seeing something that I don't understand.
"I pulled up closer to them, and there's Besselink hanging out of the back door of the car, grinding a wedge on the highway. That's what the sparks were."
You could see it like it was in a movie.
"It really happened," Arnold said.
"Al Besselink's a crazy man," Mike said.
"Oh, s---," Arnold said in casual agreement.
ARNOLD AND MIKE were talking golf pro to golf pro, even though Mike won only one Tour event and Arnold won 62. But in the most essential way, I think, Arnold viewed Mike as an equal. Also, they both knew what it meant to lose a U.S. Open in a playoff, a small but meaningful connection. After our morning session in his office, Arnold gave us a tour of his house that wrapped up when he showed us his very nice but really quite modest master bathroom. I detected a certain pride: This is the house I built with my golf skill. We then made a 500-yard drive to the Latrobe Country Club for lunch. Arnold introduced Mike to the dining-room manager as "the guy Hale Irwin beat in the U.S. Open. They had a playoff."
We ate at a round table. It was Arnold, his wife, Kit, Doc, Mike, me, and Pete Luster, Arnold's pilot. I ordered an Arnold Palmer. I've seen Arnold have a martini at lunch or a beer or a glass or two of wine, but on this day he ordered a Coke Zero.
We talked about the Congressional Gold Medal that Arnold had just received, and we made a list of the five other athletes who had received it. Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Byron Nelson came readily. The fifth name was elusive for a minute until Doc remembered it: Roberto Clemente, the Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who died while doing relief work for earthquake victims.
We talked about the results of the World Golf Hall of Fame voting and whether Fred Couples deserved his spot. Arnold said he had voted for him. That led me to ask Arnold how he would compare Tiger and Fred, just for pure golf talent. Many knowledgeable golf people, Mike among them, will argue that nobody has ever hit a higher percentage of flush shots than Fred.
"That's very difficult for me to tell you about," Arnold said. "Let me think about it some."
I figured it was a topic that, for whatever reason, Arnold didn't want to get into. We moved on to other things. The Ryder Cup. Kit and Arnold's annual trip to watch the Pirates and the Cubs play. The Wake Forest--Duke football game. What happens to players when they go to the broadcast booth.
A full 15 minutes had passed when Arnold said, "I've been thinking about your question."
The table went quiet, and I realized almost immediately that Arnold was answering a question that was far different and more interesting than the one I had asked him.
"Tiger was somewhat of a robot golfer," Arnold said. "He was so endeared to his father and what his father had him doing that it is almost difficult to explain. I watched him practice at Isleworth when he was in the midst of it. As long as he stuck to the routine that his father had laid out for him, he was going to succeed. Had he continued to do that, he probably could have established a record that would never have been broken."
Earl Woods died in May 2006. Since then Tiger has won four major titles: the 2006 British Open and PGA Championship, the 2007 PGA Championship and the 2008 U.S. Open, in the playoff over Rocco Mediate.
"After his father died, and without getting into what happened and why it happened, Tiger got into other things," Arnold said. "He went away from the routine and the work ethic that was so natural for him. It's happened before. It has something to do with the psychological effect of the game. If he doesn't try to go back to where he was five or six years ago, he will get worse instead of better. Could he go back to where he was? He could. Do I think he will? No."
JUST SO you know, those were Arnold's own questions. It was like he was interviewing himself. It was like Arnold had thought so much about the subject of Tiger Woods and his struggle to win more majors and was just waiting for the opportunity to talk about it. His sentences were so full and precise.
"I'll switch the tables," Arnold said. "If I hadn't won that U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, I could have won at least four other U.S. Opens. I really believe that."
He won at Cherry Hills, in Denver, in 1960. From there, you could almost see him making the list in his head.
"I could have won in '62."
The year he lost to Jack Nicklaus in the playoff at Oakmont, in Arnold's backyard.
Lost in a playoff at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Lost in a playoff at Olympic in San Francisco.
Tied with Nicklaus through three rounds at Baltusrol. Nicklaus won.
Arnold shot a Sunday 76 and finished four behind Nicklaus at Pebble.
Tied for the lead through three rounds at Oakmont. Johnny Miller shot 63 on Sunday and won.
"If I had had the same psychological approach I did at Cherry Hills, I could have won all those years," Arnold said. "I lost my edge."
That is some admission and some phrase, those last two words, and I didn't even know what they meant. What I knew was that Arnold was being raw and honest and saying things I had never heard him say.
"Winning that first U.S. Open was an obsession," Arnold said. "The first thing you want to do is win an Open. Then, after you win it, you have to stay aggressive, stay the way you were when you won it. And it's difficult to do."
You might be scratching your head here. After all, Arnold won dozens of tournaments after that 1960 U.S. Open, including two more victories at Augusta and his two British Opens. But that was a different era in American golf. That was a time when the U.S. Open was the absolute pinnacle and everything else, even the Masters, was far below it. For Arnold, as the son of a course superintendent from Latrobe, Pa., what could be more important than winning his own national championship? Nothing was even close. He got the one at Cherry Hills and, in some manner of speaking, was done.
Arnold stopped talking, and the table was silent for a long moment until Mike said, "It's such a fine edge."
"It is," Arnold said. "It's so fine. You have to get in there, and you have to stay in there, and once you get out, it's very hard to get back in. It's happened to every golfer. Hogan. Nicklaus. Every golfer. It's just a question of when."
Did Arnold have that same obsessive need to practice and improve and win in '65 and '75 that he did in '55, when he won his first Tour event in his rookie year? With all that endorsement money rolling in and his plane idling on the tarmac and the whole world beckoning for him? Not very likely.
Every golfer. Every golfer will someday lose the edge. Tom Watson. Jack Nicklaus. Mike Donald. Tiger Woods. Arnold Palmer. It's just a question of when.
Before that day I had always admired Arnold. But I knew nothing about the core of the man, how deeply he felt and understood himself, the game he played, the people he knew, the situations he was in. As it turned out, that day with Arnold, I was only scratching the surface. I kept returning for more, every chance I could.