Rookie golf writer finds ‘The King’ stands tall in lending a hand, even on a day when he wasn’t atop the leaderboard
These extraordinary times are difficult for everyone, many layers deep. Certainly, they are challenging for sports fans and, by extension, sports media. The remedy, in many instances, has been to re-live highlights from the past, replay broadcasts and telecasts, jog fond memories.
If you’ve spent much time in the corresponding business, meeting sports personalities and chronicling their exploits, you’ve got a loaded trunk. And if you do the occasional radio gig, attend the periodic sports dinner, play the odd fundraising scramble, you have to dip into that trunk.
Inevitably, you are asked questions about the people you cover, your worst experiences, your best experiences, who had class and who is a clown. You search for a story to satisfy the curious.
For this scribe, under the category of “Golf,” the trunk offers one memory that remains unparalleled, one story that speaks volumes about one of the greatest players the game has known, that explains why he was “The King.”
To tell it is to assign quite a few miles to the trunk. But in this environment of isolation and social distancing, odometers be damned.
The episode took place on Aug. 11, 1989, a shade northwest of Chicago, where the PGA Championship was being conducted at Kemper Lakes Golf Club. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch sent a young reporter there to find a feature, a correspondent who had never played much golf, much less covered it. At the time, there were people living in Changtang, Tibet, who knew more about the game.
But on the first day of the championship, 59-year-old Arnold Palmer went out and carded a 4-under 68. By day’s end, he was tied for third, two shots off the lead, and promoting the romantic notion that he could win an eighth major championship and – at his advanced age – complete the elusive career Grand Slam.
Savvy intuition told this otherwise-uninitiated reporter that it was something to pay attention to. That’s right, he knew nothing about fairways and greens, but even he had heard of this guy Palmer.
The next morning, this reporter was at the first tee with the subject, inside the ropes, attached at the notebook. And what this oblivious reporter experienced was completely unanticipated, a veritable trip around the bases with Babe Ruth. If 40,000 people were on the Kemper Lakes grounds that day, 35,000 were in Palmer’s entourage. The "Army" was deployed, out in full force.
As he walked each fairway, as he hit each shot, Palmer did so to raucous ovations, shouts of “Go get ’em, Arnie!” and unabashed encouragement. With each outburst, he touched the brim and raised an arm to wave acknowledgment. Max Scherzer would have needed shoulder surgery just to get through the front nine.
It was a laborious round of golf, cluttered with stops and starts, smothered in mid-August heat and humidity, as temperatures swelled into the 90s. Palmer was just two months shy of 60 candles on the cake, and his shirt was just shy of being completely drenched in sweat.
But when he birdied No. 4 to go to 5 under, the grounds exploded with Amen Corner ferocity. He had not won a major in 25 years (1964), not won a PGA Tour event since 1973, not won a PGA Championship ever. He was supposed to be window dressing, not a serious contender.
And yet, here he was, turning back pages, dancing on the leaderboard. Arnold Palmer!
Fatigue and reality cared not, and they remained in dogged pursuit. Palmer's gait became more deliberate as the round wore on. The heat spiked, the shoulders sagged and the magic faded. He three-putted No. 11, double bogeyed 13. There were no more birdies to be had to revive the card, which settled at 74.
The score kept him there for the weekend, his last at a major championship. But he no longer was in serious contention. Camelot had collapsed.
As a weary Palmer finished playing golf, he began fulfilling the other demands on his time. He made his way from the course, signing autographs seemingly every step of the way. He then granted several television interviews, concluded by a lengthy press conference at the media center.
All the while, this rookie golf correspondent lingered on the perimeter, hoping for a one-on-one that seemed ever-less likely to happen. His media obligations over, Palmer was transported to the clubhouse. This scrambling scribe followed on foot, still hoping.
Arriving at the clubhouse, he descended the stairs to the locker room, and there he was: Arnold Palmer. He sat in front of his locker, hunched over, physically spent, mentally fried and, for the first time that day, momentarily alone.
This was it, now or never. Nervously clearing space in his constricted throat, this reporter went for it: "Mr. Palmer, forgive me for asking, but I wondered if it would be possible to get in just a couple of questions with you?”
Twisting off a shoe, the haggard Palmer looked up, paused for a moment to swipe sweat from his brow and responded: "Sure, son. If I could have just a minute here to change my shirt and shoes ... we'll go upstairs and find somewhere more comfortable to talk.”
And the most amazing part: He meant it. This wasn't Mark McGwire saying he’d be right back, then sneaking out a back door of the clubhouse. This wasn’t Ricky Williams promising to meet in the lobby and never showing up. This wasn’t Allen Iverson spewing obscenities after an NBA exhibition game.
This was Arnold Palmer, who changed his shoes, put on a dry shirt, led John Q. Nobody of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch up a flight of stairs into a posh sitting room of the prestigious club, ordered himself a soft drink and one for the scribe and said, "OK, this is better.”
This reporter, still in disbelief, felt compelled to offer a qualifier: “Thank you, sir. I won't take too much of your time.”
Palmer wouldn’t have it. ”No, no, this is more comfortable. Now we can just talk. Take as much time as you need."
After trudging through 18 holes of major-championship golf on a suffocating summer day, after suffering through another hour and 20 minutes of signing autographs and conducting interviews, Arnold Palmer – the biggest name in golf – sat and talked to this anonymous neophyte for nearly 40 minutes.
The experience is one that never could happen in the present sports environment. The level of accessibility and authenticity simply doesn't exist today. The story explains why Arnold Palmer, who died in 2016 at age 87, was the best thing that ever happened to golf.
The story is in the trunk, marked “Arnie and me,” never to be forgotten.
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