September 25, 2016

Arnold Palmer - There will never be another like him.

Today we lost someone that will never be replaced. 87 years old is a nice old age, but for a person like Arnold Palmer, it is still too early. Golf probably wouldn't have had the popularity that it enjoys today without Arnold Palmer's emergence on the golf scene. He had the good looks, charisma, daring, guts, and style that caught the imagination of the sporting public. He was at the right time and place and he marketed himself, along with the very astute Mark McCormick, into not just a golfer, but a worldwide celebrity. He brought new golfers into the game, revitalized the PGA and world golf tours, and got non-golfers to become interested in watching golf in person and on television. Arnie's army was very real. I remember going to the LA Open that was played in those days at Rancho Park Golf Course in West Los Angeles, and trying to watch my favorite player Arnold Palmer. There were 5,000 people around one group and hardly anyone else watching Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Dow Finsterwald, and Gary Player. The crowd was amazing. Every shot that Arnold hit was greeted with loud applause and oohs and ahhs. Good and bad shots got the same response. His playing partners got polite applause even if they hit a great shot.

As a junior golfer, I played in the Junior LA Open tournament every year during Christmas vacation. I think my best finish was second when I was 17. Every junior got a full week long ticket to the LA Open in January. I got my parents to take me to the tournament as often as they could. I have a few Arnold Palmer moments that stick in my mind. The first one I want to tell you about happened in either 1960 or 1961. That makes me 15 or 16 years old at the time. I had the good fortune to sit and watch my hero hit every club in his bag for an hour on the range at Rancho. I had a front row seat only 10 feet or so from where he hit. The most memorable thing I remember is the sound that was made when his club struck the ball. His ball striking was superb that day and his control for distance and direction right on. He hit the ball first and took a good sized divot. The ball started off low and rose like a jet before falling nicely right at his caddy's feet. He played a small hook with every club. His swing was very consistent and his impact so solid. He moved his lower body extremely well through the ball, which enabled his hands to get well in front of the ball and create a great lag and a path to keep the club swinging further down the line.

Much has been written about the unusual and unorthodox swing that Arnold Palmer had in his prime. I thought it was a great swing. The amateur that looks at the swing sees the wild helicopter finish and the fighting for balance. That's after the fact. He was rock solid on the backswing, great at impact and had an extended on-plane path two to three feet past impact. The Arnie finish was a result of many a duck hook in his youth and young amateur career. He overcame the dreaded bad hook by an aggressive movement to his left side and getting his hands farther ahead and not turning them over. This was not the standard way it was taught in the 50's and 60's. The helicopter finish was a result of the club not having anywhere to go. He didn't want to get into the habit of turning the wrists over, so he just kept them in that position and the result was the blocked looking finish. Most swings in his prime ended in a balanced finish, but when he really wanted to let it go, then the swing quickly got to the finish and the Arnie finish occurred. Unfortunately, when Arnie got older, he couldn't get to his left side as well. Then he really had to "hold on" and not turn over. That resulted in almost every shot having that finish. But in his prime, that finish was smooth and functional.

"You can observe a lot by just watching" is a quote from Yogi Berra. I learned a lot from watching Palmer play and hit balls. When I went back home to practice the next week, I just pictured Arnie in my mind and felt his rhythm and the impact. When I heard the sound and felt the impact, I knew I was close to what I wanted to accomplish. No swing thoughts, just imagery. The goal – make that sound. If I did that, then a lot of good things had to occur to make it happen.

My second memory of Arnold happened in 1977, when I was working at La Quinta Country Club during the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Arnold had just finished his round and wanted to work on his clubs. We had a loft and lie machine in the cart and bag room area. Of course he was welcome to anything that we had, but it also was a busy place with a bunch of 16 to 20 year old kids working on clearing clubs and taking care of the cart fleet. Arnold couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating to the kids. For the next couple of hours, he became one of the guys and their friend and not "The King" that demanded attention.

But my lasting memory of Arnold Palmer happened later that day at sunset. Palm Desert sunsets can be spectacular and this day it was truly colorful and special. As I was leaving the club, I drove by Arnold in the employee's parking lot, all alone, sitting on the front hood of a car with a can of Coors beer in his hand and watching the sunset. My impression of that moment was that this man was at total easy with himself and at peace with who he was and was soaking up all that life had to offer.

Thank you Arnie for being the inspiration that made many a young boy aspire to be a professional golfer. I certainly was one of those you inspired. Rest in peace.


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