The Lord's flock includes newspaper writers who approve without question the work of newspaper editors, for editors clearly have been put on Earth to transform soaring prose into a rock. An editor once read a golf story. It was midnight and the editor had the early edition of the paper delivered at home. The writer, his day done, pressed a cool beer to his forehead.
"Get Palmer higher in the story," the editor said. By chance, his telephone line ran to the saloon near the newspaper office. He wanted Arnold Palmer's name placed more prominently in the report of that day's tournament.
"He shot 73, nowhere near the leaders," came the reply.
"Who cares what he shot? He's still Palmer. He's sexy."
More often than artists in prose will admit, editors can summon the wisdom to move from in front of speeding locomotives. The boss was correct. This was 1966, but it is no less true today. If Arnold Palmer shoots 73 from now on, it subtracts nothing from the man. He invented golf.
Palmer is 48 years old. This week he plays in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, the very spot he won his only Open, 18 years ago. He won't win this week, for time has carried his skills downstream, rubbing away the sharp edges until only a smooth and shining memory remains.
What memories the man gave us. He was sexy. Hogan was frail and stern, Snead hunch-shouldered and arrogant. The young Nicklaus was a whale with a computer heart. Palmer had those blacksmith's arms and fullback's body. Best of all was that gloriously open face.
Other golfers hid behind masks of self-control. Palmer laughed and cried and endured the agonies common to all of us who ever missed a putt that needed dearly to be made. We could see it all on his face with every stroke. Others hid, but Palmer gave himself to us.
The professional golf tour today offers more than $10 million in prize money. Only the IRS knows the grand total available to pros who are paid for the burdensome work of wearing golf shirts with alligators and penguins on the breast pockets. In 1960, when Palmer won his Open, the tour paid about $1.2 million. If a pro made any extra money, he did it pumping gas.
Inflation accounts for some of the growth in prize money. So does television. Palmer did most of it. "I owe Arnold 75 cents of every dollar I've won on tour," said Frank Beard, who has won nearly $1 million.
Palmer is owed that debt because he was the perfect winner when television, hungry for something, anything, to put in front of its insatiable cameras, discovered golf. Golf is a terrible spectator sport. Its 150 players are spread over 200 acres of forest, swamp and desert. On television it is better, but not by much. Only bionic eyes can track a golf ball flying through TV's bluer-than-blue sky.
Palmer made TV golf work. And that, in turn, made golf irresistible to millions of Americans who for a while wondered if good ol' Ike was wasting our time playing that silly cow pasture pool. Palmer made it work by being Palmer.
There was the walk. Other players strolled around the course, as if sunning themselves. Palmer stalked each hole. He was determined to do damage to par. There'd be hell to pay if the hole defied him. You could see that in the strength and decisiveness of each step he took. With the heel of his right hand, he'd hitch up his trousers. A genteel game? This was wonderful battle.
Jack Nicklaus measures his achievements against history. For Nicklaus, Bobby Jones was par. For Palmer, simple victory was enough. He chased no ghosts, he kept no count of major championships. Nicklaus has double-eagled Jones by now, and Palmer soon will be in the second rank if we're counting the major championships. The difference between Nicklaus and Palmer is that one man wins for history, the other won for us.
That was Palmer's magic. He was Everyman out there. The son of a golf course greenkeeper in the foothills of western Pennsylvania, Palmer came to move with kings and presidents. He did it gracefully, but never with more warmth or consideration than he gave the loyalists who enlisted in Arnie's Army.
Frank Beard moved near the flame of greatness in the late 1960s. He shied from it. He said he didn't know how Arnold did it, how anyone could play golf at the highest level and yet cope with the demands. A Frank Beard autograph in those days consisted of a capital F followed by a B and a squiggly line of ink. Palmer's name, written 10 thousand times more, is always legible.
They gave Arnie inspiration, the Army loyalists did, and he gave them life in the fast lane. In his book, "Go For Broke," Palmer told author William Barry Furlong, "When I was young and 'hungry,' I never coveted money much - not for its own sake. Oh sure, I wanted to win and I measured the prize money carefully, not because it was money but because it would help me get on to the next tournament and do what I wanted most to do: play golf better than anybody else in the world."
That, he did. And he did it in the most marvelous ways. Palmer is no classicist. If Hogan was precise and Snead oh-so-smooth, if Nicklaus makes a bad swing every other year, Palmer came to work with inferior tools. His swing is too flat, his grip too strong, his turn on the down-swing is restricted. As an editor might have said, who cares how he hits it? He hit it into the hole quicker than anybody in the world for a decade, from 1958 on.
He did it boldly. The Army abided no timidity. Palmer was eager for every challenge, every gamble. He won a British Open once by flailing a ball through a bush. A more discreet player would have found a safer route, giving up a stroke in order to avoid calamity. Palmer went on TV and dared calamity to touch him.
In 1960 at Cherry Hills, he was seven shots behind the leader after three rounds.
"What'll happen if I shoot 65?" Palmer said to a friend before the last round.
"Nothing," said Bob Drum, a sportswriter from Pittsburgh. "You blew your chance."
"Like hell I did," Palmer said. "A 65 gives me 280 and 280 wins the Open."
That day Arnold Palmer drove the first green. It was a 346-yard par-4 hole, a slight dogleg to the right. He put the drive 20 feet past the cup. He birdied six of the first seven holes. He shot 65. He won the Open.