Sports

AT PLAY WITH A GOLFING GOD

Arnold Palmer is coming back to Toronto, the site of his first pro victory. At 76, he’s golf’s $20-million man, writes JAMES DEACON.

September 19 2005
Sports

AT PLAY WITH A GOLFING GOD

Arnold Palmer is coming back to Toronto, the site of his first pro victory. At 76, he’s golf’s $20-million man, writes JAMES DEACON.

September 19 2005

AT PLAY WITH A GOLFING GOD

Sports

Arnold Palmer is coming back to Toronto, the site of his first pro victory. At 76, he’s golf’s $20-million man, writes JAMES DEACON.

ON A SWELTERING August day in western Pennsylvania, Arnold Palmer arrives at the first tee at Latrobe Country Club for his afternoon round. The surrounding Alleghenys are cloaked in a thick gauze of humidity, and Palmer, though fresh out of the air-conditioned clubhouse, already has patches of sweat showing on his golf shirt. Undaunted, he’s eager to get going. He’s playing with a couple of low-handicap locals little more than half his age, one a dentist, the other a many-times club champion. The stakes are

just enough to make things interesting—$10 for each skin (golfspeak for winning a hole) and greenie (closest to the pin on par 3s). Their usual game.

After the others hit their drives, Mr. Palmer, as folks at the club call him, chooses a driver from among several he carries in two jammed-full bags on the back of his personal cart. With a small crowd of members watching from the clubhouse terrace, he hooks his tee shot into the trees guarding the left side of the fairway. It’s playable but not perfect, so he tees up a second ball and hits it into the trees, too. Shaking his head, he retrieves a third ball from the cart, tees it up and hitches up his pants. His swing’s shorter and less supple now, but his determination is undiminished. Rearing back, he rips a beauty that starts down the right side and draws back into the centre of the fairway far below. “That’s more like it,” he mutters before wheeling away.

So he carries more than the legal number (14) of clubs, and takes the odd mulligan. Arnold Palmer, who turned 76 on Sept. 10, has earned some slack. This is the guy who caught TV’s eye back in the 1950s and ’60s with his swashbuckling style and leadingman looks—quite the contrast from competitors who looked more like accountants

on holiday than serious athletes. Palmer attracted women and even non-golfers to telecasts, too, and with an army of devoted fans he helped turn a fringe professional sport into the network staple it is today. And when he and lawyer Mark McCormack established the Cleveland-based International Management Group on a handshake in 1960, they ushered in a modern era of sports marketing opportunities that boosted the income of athletes worldwide.

It all worked out so brilliantly that Palmer authored another chapter in the all-American story: the son of a greenskeeper, born just weeks before the 1929 market crash that precipitated the Great Depression, becomes fabulously rich and internationally famous. He aced marriage, too, to the late Winnie, with whom he had two daughters. And he returns every spring to the same old bungalow in Latrobe that he’s lived in for most of his adult life. It’s across the street from the club where his dad and he worked— brother Jerry runs it now. As a boy, Palmer wasn’t allowed to swim in the club’s pool with the members’ kids. Now he owns the place— he bought it in 1971. “This is my home,” he told Maclean’s in a rare interview in Latrobe. “It means a great deal to me.”

Palmer plans to be in Toronto this week

for a ceremony honouring something else that means a lot to him—the 50th anniversary of his first pro victory, the Canadian Open at Weston Golf and Country Club. He turns down many invitations to be honoured here and there, but he accepted this one. “It was my first tour victory, and that was very, very significant for me,” he says, sitting in his office and gazing at a blow-up of a black and white photo of himself beaming and hugging the old Seagram trophy that August day in 1955. “I had felt that, once I’d won, the barrier would come down. And that was true, because after that, I started to win.”

In some respects, he’s not so different from the unheralded entrant who teed it up a half-century ago. He isn’t pulling a trailer and parking it by Weston’s maintenance sheds, as players did back in the day—an accomplished pilot, he’s flies his own eightpassenger Cessna Citation X jet. Dow Finsterwald, a friend who played against Palmer in amateur and professional golf, says Palmer appreciates his success and enjoys what it affords him. But at Bay Hill, his Orlando resort, Palmer spends winters in a condo rather

PALMER ushered

In a modern era of sports marketing opportunities that boosted the income of athletes worldwide

than in one of the Versailles-by-the-swamp palaces erected by other Florida-based sports stars. “The principles that made him a wonderful guy when I met him in college, he still clings to them today,” Finsterwald said from his Colorado Springs, Colo., home recently. “Everybody changes over the course of their lives, but in his case, not a lot.” Modesty is a big part of Palmer’s broad appeal. So, too, is his reputation—there are no drug allegations, no rumours of gambling debts, and no hints that, in person, he is any less admirable than the man we see on TV. But that doesn’t fully explain this remarkable fact: 32 years removed from his last PGA Tour victory, he’s still winning big in the boardroom. In 2004, in its semi-annual survey, Forbes magazine ranked Palmer near the top of the athlete-sponsorship heap with young bucks such as Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher and Peyton Manning. The businesses he owns or endorses, from

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golf course design and California wine to Rolex watches and clothing lines, pay him an estimated US$20 million a year. It’s a record that others now strive to emulate. Palmer’s long-time agent, Alastair Johnston, says that at a fundraiser in New York recently, Palmer was introduced for the first time to Magic Johnson, the retired NBA star who has also enjoyed great success in business. “It was interesting,” Johnston says. “Magic talked about how honoured he was to meet Arnold, and he told everyone he had built his post-retirement plan entirely on Arnold’s model.”

AT A GAS STATION on Route 30 east of Greensburg, a customer asks the cashier for directions to Latrobe Country Club. The attendant, a twentysomething male with four visible tattoos, at least a dozen piercings and a Day-Glo orange Mohawk hairdo, stares blankly in response. Persisting, the visitor adds that it’s Arnold Palmer’s club. “Oh, Amie’s place,” the attendant replies, suddenly animated and smiling. “Go out here, turn right at the lights, take the first left, and it’s about a mile from there.”

Palmer put Latrobe, population 9,000, on the map, and everyone knows it. They’ve put him on the map, too—among other things, a street, a hospital wing and the regional airport are named after him. Latrobe Country Club, meanwhile, is like Graceland for golf lovers, only better: this King has not left the building. He works most mornings in his office across the street, handling queries from sponsors, charities and fans, interrupted occasionally by his dog, Mulligan, a yellow Lab, demanding attention. He often eats lunch in the club’s grill room, with members or staff. And most days he plays a round. It’s a thrill for visitors (the club allows some non-member play) to arrive at the first tee and find that Arnold Palmer’s playing in the group ahead of them.

Pilgrims to the club and to the Palmer offices will discover a trove of Palmerabilia. Mounted on walls and in glassed cases are old photos of victory celebrations and gleaming replicas of his most valued trophies, from the 1954 U.S. Amateur and seven subsequent major professional championships. There are framed letters, most to congratulate but others to console (when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997; when Winnie died of cancer in 1999), from Queen Elizabeth and every U.S. pres-

ident from Ike to Dubya. There’s a small frame bearing a wrinkled $10 bill from frequent playing companion Dwight Eisenhower, attached to a note that reads: “Enclosed is payment for my debt—and never was there one more reluctantly paid.” Of the perks of success, Palmer says: “The thing I’ve enjoyed the most are the friendships I’ve had with guys I’ve played golf with from other walks of life. I had the pleasure

‘WHAT other people may find in poetry or art museums,’ Palmer once said, ‘I find in the flight of a good drive’

of spending quite a lot of time with President Eisenhower and some of the other presidents. That was very enlightening.”

DRESSED for dinner in a sports jacket and open-necked dress shirt, his hair still wet from a post-round shower, Palmer is sitting in the grill room with brother Jerry, longtime associate Doc Giffin and a few other guests watching the Golf Channel, the all-golf network Palmer co-founded and co-owns. But the man who seems to have everything really doesn’t. This becomes apparent when the three TV commentators begin handicapping the favourites going into the PGA Championship that begins the next day,

which begs the inevitable question: is the season’s final major championship still a sore point for Mr. Palmer? He swirls the cubes in his pre-dinner vodka and tonic before answering. “I won the Senior PGA, the European PGA, the Canadian PGA— but not the American PGA,” he says, swirling some more. “Ticks me off.”

Being one major short of a career grand slam hasn’t hurt his business. Alastair Johnston says International Management Group has always been careful not to sell Palmer as a “winner,” despite his 62 tour victories, because winning is transient, even for the greatest players. Other than Palmer and hoops legend Michael Jordan, the other top 20 athletes on Forbes’s 2004 list of earners were still active in their sports, and almost all of them derived the bulk of their incomes from their salaries, not from endorsements. “We’ve worked hard to position Arnold as ‘successful,’ ” Johnston says, “because success endures and because, frankly, more people can relate to it.” That approach helps cross linguistic and cultural barriers in the international market: Palmer’s international clothing line (not the one sold in Canada by Sears) is a hot brand among Japanese teens, especially girls, most of whom don’t know anything about golf but think that Arnold Palmer is a big deal.

Palmer has an advantage over athletes in other sports who don’t have senior tours to keep them competitive and visible. “He performs on a stage where the lights stay on a little longer than they do in other sports,” says Johnston, a Glasgow native who’s now co-CEO of IMG in Cleveland. As well, there

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are more companies targeting the increasingly free-spending over-50 crowd. The trick is selecting deals that make sense—Palmer prefers to associate himself with products he uses himself, whether it’s GlaxoSmithKline drugs or Ketel One vodka. “With all due respect to McDonald’s, Arnold being a spokesman for Big Macs doesn’t work,” Johnston says. “Arnold being a spokesman for Cadillac does.”

The marketing guys can only do so much, though. The rest is up to Palmer. His image helps: companies making a significant investment in a spokesman are on the defensive, scared off by recent sex scandals and drug allegations that hurt the image of athletes and their sponsors. For consumers suffering from scandal fatigue, Palmer reassuringly comes from a sport in which players call penalties on themselves and which places inordinate weight on integrity. “I’m biased, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating—when you look at Arnold Palmer, you trust him,” says Johnston.

In business, Palmer has a knack for cutting through the bull. He and Johnston were in a meeting in Los Angeles years ago with executives of Pennzoil that was dragging on but going nowhere—the advertising guys couldn’t see how to use a golfer to pitch their motor oil. Then Palmer started talking about his early days working at the Latrobe club, being taught to use Pennzoil—no lie— when he changed the oil on the old tractor. Before he finished, the agency guys were already drawing up what would become Arnold’s then-signature ad campaign using the old tractor as a prop, and Palmer began a 25-year association with the company.

Palmer started to pursue off-course income earlier than most of his contemporaries. “I always felt like I had to look to the future, and I still do,” he says. “I enjoyed certain standards of living, certain pleasures in my life, so I concerned myself with being able to continue with those pleasures until I succumb to old age.” A natural, he seems to understand what fans, media and sponsors want from him, and is happy to oblige. He entertains corporate clients at Bay Hill or Latrobe. He has good relations with the media, aided by Giffin, a former sportswriter in Pittsburgh who was Palmer’s first full-time hire nearly 40 years ago. And who has ever signed more autographs? After a senior tour round some years back, Palmer began signing for rabid fans standing six deep along a fence lining the path to the

clubhouse. The crush got so bad that one section of the fence collapsed, forcing Palmer to do some nifty footwork to avoid injury. When he was assured that no one was seriously hurt, he walked to the next section of upright fence and began signing again.

ARNOLD PALMER will not fade away. He likes his work and he’s enjoying life with his new wife, Kit—they were married last January in Hawaii. “I’ll slow down as time goes

‘I’LL SLOW down

as time goes on-if I’m forced to. But hell, I’m a newlywed. I don’t want to slow down.’

on—if I’m forced to,” he says, laughing. “But hell, I’m a newlywed. I don’t want to slow down.” And he loves to play golf, as much as ever. Outside his office is his club room, with dozens of sets and a workbench where he regrips and reshafts clubs to his specifications. Outside the back door of his office is a practice mat and net, so he can hit balls between meetings. “What other people may find in poetry or art museums,” he once said, “I find in the flight of a good drive.” While he gives modern players their due, he stands up for the greats of the past. “If you gave the older guys the equipment they have today, Lord knows how good they would

be,” he says. “Tiger Woods is good, but I’m not sure he is better than Sam Snead was in his prime, or Ben Hogan, or Byron Nelson.” Golf will be at the centre of Palmer’s Sept. 12-13 itinerary in Toronto. Among other things, he’ll help launch a new senior golf tournament with Canada’s only world golf hall-of-famer, the great Marlene Stewart Streit. But his first stop on the way from the airport is at the Hospital for Sick Children— kids and hospitals top his charitable priorities. Then he’ll attend a gala dinner where his Canadian Open victory will be the focus. He recalls that when he came to Toronto back then, he wasn’t exactly riding high on momentum. He had finished 55th the previous week in Chicago. “But I was feeling pretty good,” he says. “I felt like it was time that something happened, and it did. It started right there at Weston. I played good, and I putted very well.”

It’s a happy memory, but his expression turns sour as he remembers a distant detail. This may be Palmer’s final trip to Canada, and he wants something back. “I had an old Wilson blade putter that worked quite well,” he says. “I have never seen it since that tournament. Someone took it out of my bag, which was lying on the edge of the putting green at Weston. There were a lot of activities—of course we were very excited. But when I went to pick up my clubs, the putter was gone,” Doc Giffin chimes in, saying maybe, after all these years, someone will return it when he gets to Toronto. “That’d be very nice,” says the man who has almost everything, smiling again. “I’d like that.” I?1