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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Half-Decades of Dominance: Arnold Palmer

 One in a Series
Fifty years ago this month, Arnold Palmer hit the most famous shot of his career – indeed, one of the most famous shots in golf history: a driver to the green of the first hole of the final round of the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. The shot – and the winning round of 65 it set in motion – cemented Arnold's reputation as a daring, dashing, hard-charging, balls-out dynamo of a golfer. It was the moment he truly became The King, the best golfer on earth.
     What if Arnie had played it safe? Not just on Saturday's final round (they played 36 on Saturday in those days), but all week. He had tried to drive that first green in each of the first three rounds and paid the price for it. The world will never know, of course. But it could easily be argued that if Arnie had played the 346-yard downhill, dog-leg par-4 with brains instead of brawn, he wouldn't have needed to mount such a sensational 7-shot comeback in the final round.
     Maybe, maybe not. But Arnold Palmer was not raised to play it safe. (Image: Arnold Palmer flings his visor after sinking his final putt at Cherry Hills in 1960. John G. Zimmerman, SI, via sportsillustrated.cnn.com)

The story of Arnold Palmer's humble beginnings is well known. Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1929, Palmer had a club in his hands at a very early age. His father, Milford Jerome "Deacon" Palmer, was chief groundskeeper and head professional at the local country club. And even though he basically grew up on a golf course, his early life was not one of privilege. Latrobe was a small town, and in those days, golf professionals were still regarded as little more than hired help – as evidenced by Deacon's dual role at the club.
     Young Arnie learned the game from the man most people called "Deke" – whose methods reflected his no-nonsense approach to life and work. "Hit it hard, boy," Arnold says Deke instructed him. "Go find it and hit it hard again." By the time he was 5, the legend goes, he was hitting the ball hard enough that the ladies of the club would pay him a nickel to hit their balls over the creek on the sixth hole – 120 yards out.
     His well-earned confidence often bordered on cockiness. The ability to walk that fine line between the two would would serve him well during his competitive career. As a boy, his caddy friends would often say, "I'm Walter Hagen" or "I'm Bobby Jones" as they fantasized their way around the course. Palmer, by contrast, would simply declare, "I'm Arnold Palmer."
     And therein lies the key to much of Palmer's success. Perhaps the most powerful weapon in championship golf is the ability to say to yourself: "I'm the best player in the world and everyone else on the course knows it." For the early years of the 1960s, that ability was a big club in Arnold Palmer's bag.
     From 1960-1962, Palmer won five major championships (two Masters, two Open Championships, and one U.S. Open) and finished second in three others. He was the leading money winner and PGA Player of the year in 1960 and 1962. In 1963, he won no major titles, but claimed seven other PGA Tour victories, including the prestigious Los Angeles Open and Western Open. And he was again the tour's leading money winner.
     In 1964 Palmer claimed the last of his seven major championships by winning the Masters for the fourth time in seven years. By then he had lost that big club, his undisputed claim to professional golf's throne, to a young man named Nicklaus. And with that potent weapon missing from his arsenal, Arnie and his hard-charging style would never enjoy quite the same level of success he had previously. But oh, what a reign he enjoyed at the top!

Palmer's record surely speaks for itself. But the man they call The King meant – and continues to mean – so much more to the game of golf than can be measured by scores, championships, and awards.
     Arnold's greatest contribution to golf had as much to do with timing as ability. He burst onto the scene just as television was taking root in the hearts and minds of the American public, and Palmer became the perfect leading man as a new kind of drama unfolded on the small screen. By 1960, nearly 90 percent of American households had TV, and a great many of them had tuned in to watch CBS's telecast of Palmer's thrilling Master's victory that year. Arnold birdied the final two holes to win by a stroke – and a star was born.
     Palmer didn't just play a golf course, he attacked it. He was fit, handsome, and charming, with a magnetic personality neither the galleries nor the TV audiences could resist. No one has ever connected with fans the way Palmer does before or since. (Image: Arnold Palmer at the height of his powers in 1962. Sports Illustrated.)
     It wasn't just golf in America that Arnold gave a shot in the arm. In 1960, following his famous victory in that year's U.S. Open, Palmer crossed the pond to play in the Open Championship (known to most Americans as the British Open).  Today it is commonplace for top golfers to make that trip, but in 1960 (which happened to be the tournament's 100th anniversary year), most top Americans didn't think the trip across the Atlantic was worth the effort. It was a long, expensive journey with not much money at stake. Plus, there was the not-so-small matter that everyone – from the defending champion on down – had to get through the qualifying rounds just to take part. So there was no guarantee you'd even make it to the first tee.
     But golf's new bright light felt the tournament, with its long and rich history, deserved to have the top Americans in the field. There was also enticement of what Palmer himself dubbed the new "Grand Slam": the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship, and PGA Championship. With the 1960 Masters and U.S. Open trophies already on his mantle, he wanted to take a shot at winning them all in one year.
     Palmer made the journey to much fanfare, but narrowly missed the third leg of the Slam, finishing second at the Old Course to Australian Kel Nagle by a single stroke. His mere presence, however, helped return the championship to true major status. And his disappointment with his near-miss was no doubt tempered by his subsequent victories in 1961 and '62. Eventually, the British fans would embrace Palmer in a way they had not embraced an American since Bobby Jones' historic victories there more than three decades earlier.
     That 1962 win no doubt also helped take some of the sting out of his loss earlier that year to 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus. It was the first major professional victory for the man some called "Fat Jack." Nicklaus didn't just beat Palmer, he wore him down in his own back yard (in the face of hostile fans) in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, just miles from his boyhood home in Latrobe. It was a turning point; not so much a passing of the torch by Palmer as a seizing of it by Nicklaus. But the most-potent weapon in golf now belonged to the pharmacist's boy from Columbus, Ohio.

Palmer wasn't quite done yet, of course. He captured the last of his major titles with his fourth Masters green jacket in 1964. It was fitting that his last major would come at Augusta National, a layout that suited his aggressive style (much as it suits Phil Mickelson's game today). And he went on to win 16 more individual PGA Tour titles – as well as a few "team" titles (which were more common back then) partnering with his would-be nemesis, Jack Nicklaus. The successful pairing is testament to the mutual respect and friendship the two men shared, even in the face of their fierce on-course rivalry. (Image: Palmer receives his fourth green jacket from Nicklaus, the 1963 champ. augusta.com)
     Today, no one can match Palmer's standing in the game. He remains the one true "King," respected and admired as no one short of Nicklaus – and truly beloved as no other.

Half-Decade of Dominance: 1960-1964
Major wins/appearances: 6/19 (31.6%)
    Masters: 1, T2, 1, T9, 1
    U.S. Open: 1, T14, 2, 2, T5
    Open Championship: 2, 1, 1, T26, DNP
    PGA Championship: T7, T5, T17, T40, T2
Top 5: 13/19 (68.4%)
Top 10: 15/19 (78.9%)

Seven major professional championships
    4 Masters (1958, '60, '62, '64)
    1 U.S. Open (1960)
    2 Open Championships (1961, '62)
One U.S. Amateur Championship (1954)

Sources/Recommended reading
A Golfer's Life, by Arnold Palmer with James Dodson.
Arnie and Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf's Greatest Rivalry, by Ian O'Connor.
The Eternal Summer: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Hogan in 1960, Golf's Golden Year, by Curt Sampson.
Jenkins at the Majors: Sixty Years of the World's Best Golf Writing, from Hogan to Tiger, by Dan Jenkins.


  1. HBO recently aired a documentary about the 1960 U.S. Open Back Nine at Cherry Hills. I'm not sure if it's available on DVD, but it's worth checking out.

  2. Excellent profile of the King. If only ... the Palmer magic could have continued another half decade, he could have reached double digits in major titles, a figure that seems more representative of his greatness.

  3. Thank you, Phil. I often find myself marveling at the parallels between Jack/Arnold and Tiger/Phil. There are a lot of similarities, but I think a key difference is that Tiger never knocked Phil off the throne, as Jack did to Arnie – because Phil had never claimed the throne in the first place! I think Arnie was in some ways a victim of circumstance (Jack's arrival), but I also think if he had learned to manage a golf course more instead of always attacking it, he would have had more success in his later years.