Arnold Palmer: The Man Behind the Myth

March 18, 2015

Why does the King still matter?

The Bay Hill Invitational is our annual chance to celebrate Arnold Palmer, and by now it all feels so familiar: endless black-and-white footage of the young, strapping Arnie, lashing his driver and smoldering on the greens; a few 18th–hole, TV–tower cameos with the distinguished gent still looking dashing in a blue blazer; good-natured yukking with the newly crowned champ at the trophy presentation. Palmer, 85, is so ubiquitous during Bay Hill week that it’s easy to take him for granted. I know because I have been doing it for years. Oh, I’ve read all the books and watched the various documentaries. I understand his historic importance on an intellectual level, but until very recently I never really connected with Palmer, the man or the myth. I started covering golf in 1994, just as he was making his final farewells as a competitor. I remember sitting in a sweltering press tent at the Open that year, at Oakmont, where Arnie was playing his final national championship, a tourney that defined his legend in 1960 but tormented him ever after. It’s not a surprise that Palmer cried a lot during that press conference, but I was struck at how many of my normally grim colleagues were leaking tears too. Nobody cried a few years later when Jack Nicklaus starting saying his goodbyes. What was it about Palmer that touched so many?

I finally got a satisfactory answer from reading my colleague Michael Bamberger’s superb new book, Men In Green. Bamberger weaves in the stories of 18 golf legends — some iconic like Palmer, others merely cultish — but each of them meaningful to him in a personal way. The book introduces us to a slew of unforgettable characters while peeling back the curtain on various superstars. Yet against all odds Palmer is the protagonist who has stuck with me the most. I thought I knew all there was to know about the guy, but he opened up to Bamberger in a unique way.

Palmer tells a great story from his swinging youth, when he was engaged to Winnie, his first wife, who died in 1999. In Miami without his fiancée to play in his first pro event, Arnie ran into a model — “a good-looking broad” in his old-school lexicon — and stayed out late carousing with her. When he returned to his hotel his father, Deacon, gave him a scolding, essentially telling he had to pick what kind of life he wanted to live. Within a few days Arnie had driven home and married Winnie, the couple spending their wedding night in a trucker motel off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Dripping off the page is the virility that made Palmer a star at the dawn of the TV age, but at the heart of this tale is commitment and focus. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of Tiger Woods and how different his legacy would be if he’d gone down a similar road.

Palmer has spent a half-century as a wildly successful pitchman, amassing a fortune worth hundreds of million of dollars, but as Bamberger tours the King’s home in Latrobe, Pa., he is struck by its modesty. Palmer comes alive in other, little ways. Conni Venturi, the ex-wife of the late Ken Venturi, recalls a long-ago day when the Tour families were staying at the same hotel. Her young son wandered down the hall and through the open door into Palmer’s room. She found the boy sitting on the bed next to Palmer, both of them eating cereal and watching TV. What an image. Throughout his time with him, Bamberger is struck by Arnie’s graciousness and the many understated ways he makes others feel welcome, or good about themselves. Of course, Palmer could unintentionally have a forceful effect on his colleagues. Hale Irwin talks in the book about how he was moved to rethink his swing after seeing Palmer getting out of the shower and noting his muscular chest and shoulders. This is what powered Arnie’s swing, and on the spot the slender Irwin ascertained he’d have to do it another way.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Bamberger’s tale is his deep-dive into the psyche of Ken Venturi, who was a complicated man. Venturi went to his grave bitter about losing the 1958 Masters to Palmer. They were playing together in the final round when Palmer’s ball became partially embedded on the 12th hole. An epic rules dispute followed, and even though I’d read about it a dozen times I was never entirely clear who was right and who was wronged. Bamberger’s sleuthing makes it plain that Palmer followed the letter of the law and Venturi’s sour grapes were founded not on the ruling itself but jealousy that he wasn’t the one who went on to become an American icon. In private, Venturi had unkind things to say about his adversary, and surely those whispers made their way back to Palmer. But he was always gracious toward Venturi, even when eulogizing him — the very personification of taking the high road.

This week, Arnie and his many virtues will again be on display. It’s more urgent than ever that we appreciate him, because his health has been declining of late. I, for one, will be seeing him with new eyes, no longer as a relic but rather as a good man who has aged gracefully. The trophies he won are nice, and undeniably they are an important part of the story, but for me what Palmer now represents is the triumph of a life well-lived.