Sports

Return of the King

Arnold Palmer may be golf royalty, but he is also a man of the people

JAMES DEACON May 6 1996
Sports

Return of the King

Arnold Palmer may be golf royalty, but he is also a man of the people

JAMES DEACON May 6 1996

Return of the King

Sports

Arnold Palmer may be golf royalty, but he is also a man of the people

SPECIAL REPORT

JAMES DEACON

The crowd surrounding the first tee at the PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., had already filled the temporary grand stands and any other viewing areas long before Arnold Palmer arrived. He was playing his first

women blew kisses. Minutes later, when he was officially introduced by the starter, the cheers of Arnie’s Army rose to a lusty roar. Palmer turned, doffed his cap and smiled, and held out his hand—not so much in a wave but as if to reach out to his legions. As the din subsided, he asked his caddie about the wind and the distance to the fairway bunkers before choosing a club. Then, in the eerie hush, he teed it up and drilled a 260-yard drive straight down the middle.

Forget Elvis. The King plays golf, not guitar. Since bursting onto the sports scene in the mid-1950s as a handsome, hard-swinging dynamo,

Arnold Palmer has led golf out of closeted country clubs

and into the mainstream of “

North American life. From the moment he won his first Tour victory, at the 1955 Canadian Open, his popularity soared— not just among the plaid-pants set but among people who didn’t know a nine iron from a tire iron but were attracted by his man-of-the-people style. That charisma gave the PGA Tour the star power it needed to elevate itself from a nomadic fringe sport to a mainstay on network TV. Years later, in the early 1980s, Palmer did the same for the infant Senior PGA Tour, helping it become perhaps the most successful start-up sports enterprise of the last two decades.

His work is not done. This

round with American star Hale Irwin and South African newcomer John Bland, and he was ___________________ the least likely of the three to chal lenge for the championship. Yet he was the one most of the spectators had come to see. And when he fi nally managed to squeeze through the unruly throng of well-wish ers and autograph hounds and emerged onto the cordoned-off tee area, the applause was sponta neous. Most fans stood, many ___________________ called out his name, and several Arnold may be gc but he man oft

season, the 66-year-old Palmer is deeply involved in two major golf ventures in Canada. The Greater Vancouver Open, a new PGA Tour event, will be played from Aug. 22 to 25 on Palmer’s latest Canadian course, Northview Golf & Country Club in Surrey, east of Vancouver. And he will be the main attraction at the inaugural du Maurier Champions,

_ a Senior Tour tournament to be

played June 13 to 16 at the venerable Hamilton Golf and Country Club in Ancaster, Ont. To the astonishment of the event’s organizers, Palmer did not have to have his arm twisted. He wanted to come. “Canada has always been important to me,” he told Maclean’s in a recent interview. “I won my first official tournament there, and I haven’t forgotten that.”

Neither have his fans, which is rather remarkable. Consider: Palmer has passed retirement age, wears hearing aids, his face is so weathered that the wrinkles around his eyes have deepened into creases and he has not won an official tournament in almost eight years. Yet he still captivates an audience with verve and style. “Watch this,” a twentysomething fan whispered excitedly to a friend before Palmer teed off in Palm Beach Gardens. “Knowing Arnie, he’s going for the green.” On golf courses that usually tolerate only polite applause, the army clamors for autographs

and hollers support as if he were still mounting his famous charges. Fans remember, or have been told, that he once won tournaments the way Errol Flynn beat back pirates. In fact, Palmer remains so compelling because he still plays to win, lashing at shots with a signature swing that seems unchanged from the one that produced 61 PGA Tour victories, 12 on the Senior Tour and 19 other titles around the world. “It’s as if you have to watch him,” say PGA Tour veteran Ben Crenshaw. “When he wraps his hands around a golf club, you just know something exciting is about to happen.”

His admirers are not confined to the galleries. Touring pros of all ages regard Palmer with respect bordering on awe, and not just for his accomplishments on the course. Thanks to his business empire, he is worth an estimated $270 million; last year

alone, he earned about $19 million from his worldwide enterprises ranging from equipment manufacturing and golf course development to automotive and aviation sponsorships. He travels to appointments aboard his own luxurious Cessna Citation VII jet. But with all of that, he is unfailingly modest and polite, taking time to thank tournament volunteers and signing more autographs than any of his peers. Jack Nicklaus may be the best player of all time, says Lee Trevino, but there is no doubt who is the most influential player in the sport. “Arnold Palmer, no question,” the talkative Texan said after a recent practice round in Florida. “We all want to be like Arnie, only it’s not easy. Arnie’s 66 years old now, and he’s never said anything derogatory in his whole life.”

For baby boomers, Palmer was the ideal. He played hard, liked a good party and seemed a refreshing alternative to the stuffy private-club types. In person, his kindness won many followers. PGA Tour pro Mark McCumber says it was Palmer who inspired him to pursue a career in golf. On the practice green at the Bay Hill Invitational this spring, he recalled meeting his idol at an exhibition in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1962. McCumber, then 11 years old, ran up to Palmer early in the round and asked for a golf ball. Palmer told him to see him later, so McCumber followed him closely the rest of the day. “At the end, he was surrounded by other kids and he gave away every ball in his bag,” McCumber says. “I started to leave and got about 10 yards away when he yells, ‘Hey kid!’ I turned around and he flips me the ball he had been playing. ‘I didn’t forget you,’ he said. And I never forgot it, either.”

T he steel town of Latrobe, Pa., 80 km southeast of Pittsburgh, would proba

1 JL bly be best known as the I home of Rolling Rock beer. It ° would be, that is, if Arnold Palmer had not been born there in 1929. He grew up in a small house alongside the Latrobe Country Club. His father, Deacon, had been on the construction crew that built the nine-hole golf course for a local steel company; he later joined the grounds crew and eventually was promoted to greenskeeper and club professional. Young Arnie got his first cut-down clubs at age three and broke 100 for 18 holes when he was only 7. But despite working summers with his father as a caddie and club maker, Palmer was not permitted to play the members-only Latrobe course. He laughs when asked if he takes any extra satisfaction from the fact that he now owns the course, and keeps a summer home there. “That happens in America,” he says, “which is why this country is so great.”

Thanks to two state high-school championships, Palmer was

awarded a golf scholarship at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem,

N.C., in 1947. He played well, twice winning conference titles, but he left before graduating, joined the coast guard for three years and then worked as a paint salesman in Cleve land. He did not decide to turn pro until he won the U.S. Golf Association Amateur Championship in 1954. That same year, he met and eloped with Winifred Walzer, who has been his wife for more than 40 years.

Palmer was not an immediate success when he first turned pro, and by the time he, Winnie and their towtrailer got to Weston Golf and Coun| try Club in Toronto that summer to | begin the Canadian Open, he was beginning to wonder if he could ever =j make a living from tournament golf.

Nearly 41 years later, putting his feet up after the second round at the Seniors’ Championship, he remembers each day at Weston clearly. He started well, shooting an eight-underpar 64 in the first round, one back of Charlie Sifford’s astounding 63. Palmer shot 67 the next day to take the lead.

“It was sort of a tense round for me,” he recalls. “I wanted to put myself in a position to win a tournament for the first time. After that, the people were really nice, really rooting for me. I could feel it—it made me feel good. But I was scared to death, too.”

Larry O’Brien, a Montrealer who now is vice-president of Jack Nicklaus’ company, Golden Bear International, was doing commentary for CBC at the 1955 Canadian Open, and recalls how Palmer became the fan favorite. Unlike so many other competitors, Palmer seemed to attack a course rather than just play it. “That second round was when Arnie really connected with the crowd,” says O’Brien. “You could feel it, like a wave.” Palmer pulled away from the field with rounds of 64 and 70— j according to press reports, three of his errant shots bounced back into play off unsuspecting paying customers—and coasted to a four-shot win over Jack Burke Jr.

In hindsight, Palmer says, the win in Canada turned his career around. With new confidence, he went on to win two PGA Tour events in 1956 and 10 more over the next three seasons, including the 1958 Masters, his first “major.” Between 1960 and 1967, he flourished, recording 51 victories, including three dramatic triumphs at the Masters, one at the 1960 U.S. Open and two British Open titles.

Still flushed from a practice round on a hot Florida day, Jack Nicklaus—the man who cut short Palmer’s domination of the game in the 1960s—says the rivalry between the two giants continues. Their companies now compete for business all around the world, and they still face each other at tournaments, as they did at both the recent Masters and PGA Seniors’ Championship. “Arnold and I butt heads no matter what we do, whether it’s designing golf courses, playing, endorsement work, whatever,” says Nicklaus, who

‘Arnold and I butt heads no matter what we do,’ says Nicklaus

is 10 years younger than Palmer. “That’s part of the business, but we are friendly competitors in everything we do, and I think that’s good for both of us.”

Still, it was Palmer’s trailblazing that gave Nicklaus and modern-day sports tycoons such as hockey’s Wayne Gretzky and hoops star Michael Jordan the chance to translate athletic prowess into boardroom clout. ‘There is no doubt that we all have had the way paved by Arnold Palmer,” says Crenshaw. “He came along at the most opportune time, with television exposure, and he forged a bond with corporate America.”

____ With his longtime agent and

friend, Mark McCormack, Palmer created the model for the athlete-businessman. McCormack was a Cleveland lawyer and keen amateur golfer who, in 1959, began arranging Palmer’s affairs. “He had no interest in handling insurance or taxes or answering his mail—he just wanted to play golf,” McCormack says. “So I told him that he’d play better if he had someone to look after those things.”

Since that handshake agreement, McCormack has built the International Management Group, the largest sports marketing and management firm in the world, while helping Palmer create Arnold Palmer Enterprises, a holding company that oversees his many businesses. The two men started modestly, working uncharted territory: in those simpler times, most athletes had yet to board the gravy train of corporate sponsorship (though Babe Ruth had lent his name to a candy bar). Before long, McCormack convinced companies that they could sell more clubs, cars or any other product by licensing Palmer’s name. There was even a string of Arnold Palmer dry cleaners. As well, McCormack arranged exhibitions and private outings with business executives who would pay handsome fees to play a round

with the King. The demand soon outstripped the supply, and McCormack added such stars as Nicklaus and Gary Player to his stable. “It became apparent that businessmen liked to play golf with the pros,” McCormack says. “It wasn’t like the other sports—you couldn’t play football with Joe Namath, for instance.”

Palmer excelled in his new role. He was comfortable talking to executives, whether in a suit at meetings or hosting a foursome on the golf course, and the associations had enduring benefits. “A lot of those people became chief executives along the way,” he says, “and they were good connections to have.”

Palmer’s leadership in so many aspects of modern golf explains why other stars look to him for advice. Walking off the third tee during a round at the PGA Seniors’ Championship, for instance, Hale Irwin quizzed him on choosing a private airplane. Palmer was among the first athletes to buy and fly his own plane, and his interest in aviation led to a 19-year involvement with Wichita, Kan.-based Cessna Aircraft Co. “A lot of the guys come to me with questions about flying, about what goes into keeping an airplane, the costs and so on,” he says. He doesn’t discourage them, but he makes it clear that owning and flying a private plane requires a major commitment. “It takes time to keep current with what you have to know as a pilot,” he says.

Although he now plays a limited schedule of tournaments, Palmer has not slowed down. His holdings include the Latrobe Country Club and the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando. He is a major stockholder and director of the Tennessee-based Arnold Palmer Golf Co., which manufactures clubs and other equipment bearing his name. He is chairman of The Golf Channel, a 24hour cable network based in Orlando. Through the Palmer Course Design Co., he and architect Ed Seay have designed or renovated 125 courses around the world, and he has divisions that manage golf resorts and teaching centres. And he is a spokesman for an array of companies, including Office Depot and Cadillac.

He may soon cut back on his schedule, he says, but at the moment he has too much to do. “I am still very busy in business, especially with golf course design,” he says. “I do not have a lot of time for myself, but I’m trying.” He has not chosen a successor—his two daughters, Peggy, 40, and Amy, 37, are busy with their own families, and their husbands are involved in other businesses. “So I suppose as time goes on, I’ll have to look for someone to take over the businesses, or get rid of them,” he says.

Played among the live oaks and palm trees of a discreet, upscale residential development in Orlando, the Bay Hill Invitational is a popular stop on the regular PGA Tour every March, and not just because of its $1.6-million purse. It is Arnie’s Tournament, and Palmer’s easygoing personal style is evident throughout. Many of the volunteer marshals and scoreboard attendants are neighbors. During the event, even while Tour pros are concentrating on putts worth tens of thousands of dollars, kids continue to play on a set of swings and mon-

key bars just 20 m off the 18th green. “Coming here, to this tournament,” says Nick Price, the Zimbabwean star, “is like being invited to someone’s home.” Bay Hill is Palmer’s winter home. He bought into I the development in 1970,

Palmer enjoys the Senior Tour. `Golfers used to have to find something else to do, or just retire. That isn't much fun.'

0 and when he is not travelg: ling, he can usually be

1 found in his garage workI shop, tinkering with his s clubs, or out on the course

with members playing for the usual bet, $30 a head. Bob and Phyllis Yount say they bought a home at Bay Hill 19 years ago solely because it was Arnie’s place, but they never expected him to become their friend. “He’s one of the guys,” says Yount, a 60-yearold turf-grass consultant. “He’s the first one to buy a round of beer, or ask who wants to go play golf.”

Although he is deeply involved in several aspects of his business, notably course design and aviation, Palmer has found no rival to his love of the game. For that, he is grateful for the Senior Tour. He started playing in 1980 and won the U.S. Senior Open in 1981. “It meant an extension of my life in golf,” he says. “It has kept me going, and kept a lot of these other guys going, too. It has increased our competitive lifespan, which I think is healthy. Golfers used to have to find something else to do, or just retire.” He paused, then added: ‘That isn’t much fun.”

The senior circuit has done more than just give a bunch of greying men a place to continue their adolescence. It has made many of them rich. Beginning with two events and purses totalling $300,000 in 1980, the Senior Tour now boasts 44 tour-

naments offering more than $50 million in prize money. Twelve seniors finished with more than $1 million each in 1995 tournament earnings alone. And although some players will instead play the U.S. Open that week, the field in Aiicaster this June may still include such fan favorites as Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez, leading money winners like Dave Stockton and Jim Colbert and local star Gary Cowan of Kitchener, Ont. (Organizers invited Canadian legend Moe Norman, another Kitchener native, but he turned down the chance to compete and instead plans to conduct clinics.) Although some veteran pros now rely on electric carts to get around the course, their games remain sharp. “When you are playing against a Nicklaus or a Colbert or any of the other great players out here,” says Irwin, “you have to have your best game going or you’re going to lose.”

While he enjoys the competition, Palmer does not like to lose. He has not won a senior event since 1988, and although he played well at the recent PGA Seniors in Palm Beach Gardens through the first round and a half, he was five over par on the back nine of the second round and missed the cut by two strokes. He was not happy. “If I continue to play poorly, then I will slow down quite a lot,” he says. “I suppose it’s getting close to the time when I will need to think about that anyway.”

Sitting in the players’ lounge after his final round at Bay Hill in March, Crenshaw suggested that people are able to relate to Palmer just by watching him play. “He’s rugged, he’s an individualist, he takes chances,” explains Crenshaw, a slow-speaking Texan. “You see all of that just in the way he swings the club.” But Crenshaw maintains that Palmer’s star continues to shine so brightly after more than 40 years of competition because of his off-course behavior. “He’s so appreciative of the things he has,” Crenshaw says. “He has never forgotten how he grew up. He is the ideal that the rest of fall short of emulating.”

He has heard many testimonials, but Palmer says he learned from his father that personal success was measured by how people lived their lives, not by their accomplishments. He recently honored his father by naming a prototype titanium driver after him. Wherever he goes, he is hunted: while signing autographs at the PGA, a picket fence collapsed under the weight of fans. But Palmer neatly stepped back to avoid being pinned, then moved down the line to where the fence was still upright and continued signing. The adulation gets a little much at times. “But I appreciate it and am thankful,” he says. “One of the reasons I continue to make an effort is because people continue to root for me.” If that’s the case, Palmer may have to play for a long, long time. □