By Bill Fields
In 1989, with Arnold Palmer months away from turning 60, I got the wave from his trusty assistant, Doc Giffin, to seriously loiter around Palmer for a slice-of-life magazine story as he approached that milestone birthday. This wasn’t an autograph on a tournament program in 1972 – Palmer’s signature is surrounded by those of Dave Hill, Eddie Pearce, Tom Shaw and Frank Beard – or a five-minute interview after a round on the Senior PGA Tour. This was five days and seven flights on Palmer’s Cessna Citation III, the golfer-icon at the controls.
It was as much access as I’ve ever gotten with any athlete, superstar or otherwise. There was no hours-long interview – I worked in questions when there were pauses in his busy schedule – but it was a fascinating window into his world.
I felt for him as he grinded over putts that weren’t dropping at a senior event in Malvern, Pa. I observed him meticulously going through a pre-flight checklist in the cockpit of his jet opposite co-pilot Lee Lauderback. I watched him at several greet-and-grin promotional appearances, working the room as enthusiastically as a rookie pro trying to make a good first impression. I noticed his restlessness when a limo driver fumbled for a quarter at a toll booth. I smiled when he holed a 7-iron for an eagle at a course opening. I helped him adjust the settings on his Nikon SLR while scouting a course under construction. At the direction of his wife, Winnie, who noticed that her husband wasn’t having a chance to eat, I assembled some roast beef sandwiches from a buffet for him to have on an evening flight home. Back in a meticulously clean airport hangar, I saw him eagerly grab a light beer to cut the dust of a 15-hour day.
And at my little hometown airport in Southern Pines, N.C., where a decade earlier I’d paid $27 to an assistant pro friend of mine who’d just gotten his pilot’s license to take me up for my first flight, I landed on a $7 million jet flown by a King.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @BillFields1