Arnold Palmer, a belated Happy Birthday
Almost a month ago, Arnold Palmer celebrated his 85th birthday. 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 ooos 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 am one of the few people who saw a young Jack Nicklaus in his first professional golf tournament. That was in 1962, also at Rancho Park for the LA Open. I only saw one golf shot, a five iron to the par three 8th hole. I wasn’t impressed with the swing or his demeanor. He was very serious and his facial expression was stoic to bored. I figured there wasn’t much to see, so I went on to see more interesting players.
I have a few Arnold Palmer moments that stick in my mind. The 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 stuck 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.
Thank you Arnie for what you have done for the game and the legacy that will live on forever.