Almanac Golf: Arnold Palmer tribute

If you were growing up in the 1960s, it was obvious from the emergence of The Beatles, the development of the space race and the tabloids’ obsession with hemlines and lurid sex scandals that the world was changing at a phenomenal rate.


Sport, too, was in transition. Whether in the charismatic dynamism of Muhammad Ali, who captivated even those people with no interest in boxing, or the emergence of such footballing luminaries as George Best, Pele and Eusebio, there were ample signs of a new world order.


Arnold Palmer was a notable part of that tumultuous period and, as much as anybody, this redoubtable American seized his sport by the scruff of the neck and transformed golf from a stuffy pursuit, obsessed with rules and regulations, into a milieu where film stars and presidents rubbed shoulders with those on the fairways.


To a large extent, Arnie and Ali were revolutionaries who came from different directions, but ensured that sport would never be the same again. It’s obviously sad that they have died within a matter of months of each other, but what a legacy they’ve left.


And what abiding memories many of us will always have of Palmer, who combined prodigious talent with a homespun philosophy, razor-sharp financial acumen and a sheer unalloyed joy in walking on to courses as far apart as St Andrews, Augusta National and Royal Melbourne.


There have been plenty of tributes lavished in his memory since we learned of his passing, but the majority have focused more on his entrepreneurial streak than his golfing prowess. And yet that surely detracts from the spontaneous hooraymanship which meant spectators turned up to watch in far greater numbers in the 1960s because Arnie was in town.


He won seven majors, including four Masters titles, a brace of Open successes in Blighty and a solitary US Open triumph. But he was also runner-up in another seven of these tournaments, on four occasions in his national championship, and thrice at the US PGA event. And there was an abundance of other instances where he lit up the stage on his sojourns.


Jack Nicklaus, technically, temperamentally, and from the purist’s perspective, was the better player and probably the greatest of the modern era. But even while I was growing up, he was the Roundhead in comparison to Palmer’s Cavalier spirit. One was respected, the other was loved and that sprung from Arnie’s myriad mercurial qualities, his ability to be fabulous one minute and fallible the next. The crowds could recognise  a glimpse of themselves whenever he struggled; and they could grimace at his travails and tribulations; but that merely reinforced their heartfelt admiration for what he achieved in his vocation, on and off the course.


Nicklaus, typically, hit the nail on the head in his assessment of his one-time rival and long-term close confrere. As he declared: “Arnold Palmer was the everyday man’s hero. From his modest upbringing, he perfectly embodied the hard-working strength of America.”


Much has been written and spoken about Arnie’s unconventional swing and how it sometimes let him down. But that misses the point. My uncle, Billy Aitken, a keen-as-mustard golfing enthusiast, didn’t just like Palmer; he loved the man. And, long after it was clear there would be no more major exploits from his hero, Billy was there at Troon, Turnberry, Carnoustie, St Andrews…..joining the fanatical footsoldiers who comprised Arnie’s Army and applauded him every step of every round.


They idolised him for his empathy with the paying customers, and he responded in kind, particularly when he was working in tandem with James “Tip” Anderson, the legendary caddie with whom he forged a 30-year partnership on Britain.


The duo enthralled the galleries, but they also entertained them. And although Palmer often produced snappy bon mots – “I have a tip that will take five strokes off anyone’s golf game. It’s called an eraser” – he was a pillar of integrity during his career.


Palmer and Anderson shone at Royal Birkdale in 1961 when the American maestro shot a second-round 73, in the teeth of a violent gale, which tore the field to pieces. Arnie toiled and grafted away, oblivious to the mayhem around him. But not entirely oblivious…his round would have been even better if the ball had not moved as he played from a bunker at the 16th. Immediately, he called a stroke against himself and that innate fair play was in his DNA. He won at Birkdale and he defended his trophy at Troon just 12 months later.


Many commentators have predictably focused on his dealings with Mark McCormack, one of the architects of modern corporate sport – with all its concomitant virtues and vices – and, given Palmer’s working-class origins, it was instructive he created such a significant liaison with the best-selling author of “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School.” And yet, while they transformed golf into a licence to print money from the 1980s onwards, that was only one facet of Palmer.


The other, more life-affirming one, for  those who can tell the difference between iron men and Tiger Woods, but aren’t overly concerned with belly putters and course management, was Palmer’s joy in his job of negotiating a little ball from tee to green.


He revelled in the big occasion, waved as the audiences whooped and hollered, signed autographs by the thousand, and treated triumph and tristesse in the same manner. He was to golf what Keith Miller was to cricket or Ferenc Puskas to soccer.


Sometimes the memories matter a lot more than the statistics.


In Palmer’s case, he was a force of nature with a big smile on his face!


  1. Amen. Well said Neil.

  2. Neil Drysdale says

    He was one of the sportsmen who drew fans through the gates wherever he went. Rory McIlroy added: “Without Arnie, we wouldn’t be earning the obscene amounts of money there is in golf”. But Palmer was the positive part of that development.

  3. For a change, I’m too young to remember either at their peak but love the analogy between him and Keith Miller. Just a love of the game, a brilliance in execution and ability to relate to the punters. RIP Mr Palmer.

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