Remembering Young Palmer

Nelson Hultberg

November 20, 2005

It was during those free and easy years of the fifties when he started. He was like the America that had spawned him — bold, rugged, self-assured, kind of a blacksmith and riverboat gambler rolled into one. What a remarkable time that was. Arnold Palmer had come out of nowhere to conquer the sporting world and electrify the nation with a frenzied, corkscrew swing, a story book appeal, and the courage of a young lion.

It is now 50 years since Arnie’s first PGA tour win — the Canadian Open in 1955. And for the first time in half a century, he will not play a single PGA Tour event during the year. Has full retirement finally come? If so, then it is important we pay tribute to the man and the miracle that he was.

Do you remember those incredible “come from behind” finales? Arnold Palmer was not just an athlete. He was a knight of Camelot in spikes and splendor. Fear was unknown to him. He came at a course with brazen haymakers, charging every flag and seeking always the winners circle. Even on monster holes where those more trepid cringed and gladly settled for par. He played like a windstorm, hectically and furiously. His was never to romance a course; he ripped at them and dismantled them. He didn’t know how to compromise; he was a bodacious scrambler and knew the rough only too well. But then he knew only one way to play, and the rough’s the price the brave must pay when their drives turn errant. He couldn’t play it safe. He bludgeoned out his sixty-sevens, while those more conventional plotted and maneuvered theirs.

Yet Arnie had a touch like a safe cracker. His putts came out of a magic show, his chips out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and his runs at first place right out of an MGM script. He took mighty Oakmont in ’62 like it was the local Municipal, but alas, that was also the day Nicklaus took him. Those of us in Arnie’s Army never forgave the Golden Bear, and we never forgot that dark day.

The British highlands and its jungle rough awed them all. But not Arnie. He bagged his eight birdies there like everywhere — with bursts and flurries, a game full of grimace, and that famous give her hell, full swing ahead style. He was truly a general, a fighting man, a man’s man. He crashed his way to all his wins, and they were many.

Arnie drew multitudes, while others merely attracted galleries. I well know; I was a member of that army. With a couple of childhood friends, I treked faithfully to his tournaments whenever he was playing near our home town. Four days of consummate joy seeing this young lion perform was overwhelming to a teenager.

To us, Arnie was a god. Yet he took 12s, and frowned and groaned like a Sunday hacker. His swing was hardly effortless — hardly beautiful even. Yet it exploded down every fairway. And on the green, his putts dropped like rain. More times than any mortal dared ask for. But then he wasn’t like the rest of us. His kind comes along about once every century, and it’ll be a while of a wait before we’re blessed again.

Tigermania consumes us now, and young Mr. Woods is certainly a great one. But he’ll never match the Stanley Kowalski machismo of Arnold. He’s too smooth and machine-like. There aren’t any rough edges to him. He’s like a Wall Street broker. Arnie was like a dock worker. You half expected to see him carrying a lunch pail to work. That is what made him a once-in-a-century happening — that brawny, blue collar persona mixed with genteel bearing and a gambler’s chutzpa.

To me, it’s impossible to envision golf without Palmer. It would be like Casablanca without Bogart, or New York without a skyline. What can a Masters possibly be without Arnie? He came through Georgia like a modern Sherman to bring Augusta to her knees four times. He laid Cherry Hills out in sixty-five strokes that last day of the 1960 Open, coming from eight shots back to win, and a legend was born.

Arnold became easily known all over the world, yet unlike Ali and McEnroe he never had to open his mouth. But then his type never needs to smart off. It would have been beneath Arnie to slop out braggadocio when he was winning all those tournaments. He was too much of a champion. Perhaps the greatest America has ever seen. Besides, his courage did his talking for him.

I remember as I was growing up, my father telling us stories of the fictional hero of his younger days, Frank Merriwell. Frank had been popularized through the dime novels of the early 1900’s and was the epitome of what all boys wanted to be back then. He combined great athletic prowess with a colorful personality and the highest of character to mesmerize the youth of that era. The first time I saw Palmer in 1958, I thought here was magnificent Merriwell himself stepping from the pages of books into the real world.

Color? When Arnie first arrived on the tour, he wore drab and baggy pants, and monotone shoes. But he lit fire to the galleries with his mythic presence, his sonic drives, and his searing putter. Like Frank Merriwell, his color didn’t come out of his closet; it came out of his cells. It oozed from his mien, his mettle, his every dramatic move.

He drove greens in one, and was never down till he was out of holes to play. Strong? His one iron shots would have torn through barbed wire. Deathly drama was ever his fare, every tournament in doubt till the end. Always our stomachs were knots for hours after his eleventh hour runs. It was the way he rolled up his sleeves and tugged at his pants as the pressure of the final round mounted. In an earlier time, he would have been leading Green Mountain Boys, or soloing across the Atlantic.

For a brief shining moment there in the early sixties, Arnold Palmer stirred in the American soul what Dempsey, and Lindbergh, and all the heroes through all the ages have inspired in those around them. He gathered up the people of this country in all his knightly manner and showed them what life could be for the ones who dared. Even those who had never been on a golf course and couldn’t tell a brassie from a door knob. Shopkeepers, tycoons, bookish professors, old maids, and stately kings — the whole world got caught up in Arnie’s Army. We wept for him. We cheered for him. We lived for him. And when he took six on the final green at Augusta in ’61 to blow it all, our year was over. It was only April, but we fell into despair, to await the next Spring and another charge.

Maybe there’s another strong and staccato swinger out there somewhere, with the muscles to match, the velvet touch, the bullet drives, and the knack of pulling off the unbelievable. But down deep one fears not. Never again in our time like Arnie. His kind only appears seldom and salient — like Everest, or MacArthur, or the Babe.

When Arnie was in the thick of a tournament, when that famous final charge of his was mounting, the world was somehow right — fear conquered, courage crowned. It was that fiercely determined “I can win this thing yet” expression on his face as he came down the fifteenth four shots behind. That’s what all of America fell in love with back in the early sixties; that’s what is so crucial to our breed. It was that indomitableness and ceaseless will to victory of Arnie’s that instilled into us the drive and desire to never say die in our own life’s challenges.

When future historians dig back into our times to try and uncover the secret of Arnold Palmer’s overwhelming appeal, they will find it down deep in the psychology of the country from which he came. He was, is still, and will always be the quintessence of American man.

Arnold Palmer lured millions to the game, and now he’s leaving us. Who can possibly fill the void? Is there a giant out among the countryside willing? Come quickly if you dare, for golf needs a general. It needs to be charged at, and charged up. It needs to be ever stirred, or it’ll go to sleep. It’s a lazy slow game, and men are machines when they finally master it. Mortals who flirt with par are tight-lipped and placid. Only a superman would dare to stalk a course like Arnie did, with such joy and ebullience lighting up his face. But then he was truly a happening, bound from the start to carve mastodonic marks upon his time. Centuries will pass, and they’ll still whisper his name in awe.

This article first appeared in July 2005 in Golf Punk Magazine, Brighton, UK.