Arnold Palmer has been justly honored at nearly every golf stop on the calendar this year, from Bay Hill to Augusta to the U.S. Open and British Open. The past Sunday in Canada was Arnold Palmer Day – with grandson Sam Saunders in contention – to recall the 1955 Canadian Open, Palmer’s first professional title.
This week’s Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio, also will memorialize Palmer, who died Sept. 25 at age 87. On Wednesday, a stone bridge on Firestone Country Club South’s lengthy par-5 16th hole – for which he came up with the nickname “The Monster” – will be renamed “Arnold Palmer Bridge.” A charity walk in Palmer’s honor will help raise money for two prominent area children’s hospitals.
Such a remembrance is worthwhile in Palmer lore because the Ohio story deserves a place beside Western Pennsylvania, where he was raised, and Augusta, where he became famous. Ohio is where Palmer became a man and a professional golfer.
The road to Palmer’s Ohio success was paved by sorrow. Bud Worsham, Palmer’s best friend and a teammate at Wake Forest, was killed in a car accident in 1950 near Durham, N.C., and Palmer couldn’t bare to remain in school without his pal. So, he joined the Coast Guard, eventually landing in Cleveland, about 40 miles north of Akron. Palmer played all around Ohio in amateur competitions, winning numerous tournaments.
Cleveland also was the site of his first business ventures. Palmer was offered a position as a paint salesman in Cleveland while still an amateur and received his first professional financial boost from local businessmen. By the late 1950s, Palmer had partnered with Cleveland attorney Mark McCormack, a former college golf contemporary, which led to a lifelong business relationship and the formation of the International Management Group in Cleveland.
Firestone was the focal point of Palmer’s Ohio success, with three wins there. The most notable came in the 1957 Rubber City Open when Palmer trailed Doug Ford by three strokes with five holes remaining. Palmer charged to force a playoff and holed a 25-foot chip shot on the sixth extra hole to win. Through three PGA Championships, CBS Golf Classics, Big Three matches and World Series of Golf participation, Palmer seemingly always was in Akron.
A loss also proved instrumental in Palmer’s Firestone legend. At the 1960 PGA Championship, Palmer was contending in the third round when he made a mess of the final three holes – a triple-bogey 8 on the 16th and two bogeys to fall back. He labeled the 16th “a monster” – a moniker that still holds today for the 667-yard par 5. However, in the 1963 American Golf Classic, Palmer and Bobby Nichols became the first players to hit the green in two shots.
But perhaps a more poignant moment occurred just as Palmer’s amateur career was taking off. At the 1954 Ohio Amateur in Sylvania, a rainy practice round chased most of the field off the course, including 14-year-old Jack Nicklaus, who had ventured north from Columbus to suburban Toledo for one of his first encounters with more experienced competitors.
Nicklaus, the reigning Ohio Junior champion and a rising high school freshman, was en route to the clubhouse when a solitary figure toiling away on the range caught his attention. Nicklaus watched from under a nearby tree.
“I had no idea who it was, and I watched this guy – looked like Popeye hitting these drilling 9?irons that were going about 12 feet high,” Nicklaus recalled in 2016. “So, I watched … and then I walked in the clubhouse and said, ‘Who in the world is that out on the practice tee? That guy looks some kind of strong.’ ”
It was the first time that Nicklaus saw Palmer, his future friend and rival, 10 years his elder. Palmer won the Ohio Am in 1953 and 1954 en route to a seminal 1954 U.S. Amateur victory in Detroit that convinced him to turn pro. He would first play with Nicklaus during an exhibition in 1958 in Athens, Ohio.
“None of it could have happened without things falling into place the way they did, the sequence of events that took place over the next few weeks at the end of the summer of 1954,” Palmer wrote in his 1999 autobiography, A Golfer’s Life. “In many respects that was the turning point of my life.”
Ward Clayton has been involved with golf communications for 30-plus years, including stints with the Augusta Chronicle and PGA Tour and currently with Signature Group and Clayton Communications. He lives in St. Johns, Fla. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @wardclayton