My father, Gene Bangs, was a competitive amateur golfer in Minnesota in the 1960s. He died young, before I had the chance to get to know him, but I did inherit his love for golf, along with his golf clubs. When I picked up the game in my twenties, my mother gave me Dad’s old bag. I remember reaching into one of the pockets and finding a handful of birdseed. Mom smiled. She said Dad enjoyed feeding the birds as he walked the fairways. She also told me Dad’s favorite golfer was Arnold Palmer. As a former FBI special agent, who on occasion found himself in a tight spot, Dad admired the way Palmer kept cool under pressure.
I became a pilot and aviation journalist. In 2002, I was on assignment collecting stories from celebrity pilots. Palmer, an accomplished aviator, was at the top of my short list. In August of that year I approached him at the 3M Championship in Minnesota. I interrupted his practice session, but he could not have been more gracious. A couple of months later he invited me to his Orlando club, Bay Hill, for a sit-down interview, in which he reflected on a variety of subjects: the record-breaking around-the-world flight he piloted in 1976, his friendship with President Eisenhower, course design, Caddyshack, warfare, even space tourism. It was a lively, memorable interview and then … the tape disappeared.
After returning home I couldn’t find the cassette in any of my bags. Had I left it in Florida? At my hotel? On the plane? For 15 years it’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Until, in the midst of remodeling my office last month—sorting out what to keep and what to toss from a mountain of sports memorabilia—there it was. The Arnie interview. The tape was tucked into a mislabeled cassette holder, folded inside an old magazine at the bottom of a cardboard box. It was September, the same month in which both my father and Palmer had passed away. I accepted it as a small gift. A sign. And then I went out and played golf.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript from my interview with Palmer, who was seated at his Bay Hill desk, Florida sunshine filling the room. (Ed. note: Embedded in this story are four audio excerpts from the interview in which you can hear Palmer in his own words.)
KB: Amelia Earhart went missing over the vast expanses of the Pacific in 1937. What made you, 39 years later, try your hand at an around-the-world flight—a journey that, like Earhart’s, included long stretches of thousands of miles across an empty ocean?
AP: I thought it would be damn exciting to take time off and fly around the world. We started in Denver, flying a Lear 36, eastbound to Europe, and returned in 57 hours, beating the world business jet record by about 10 hours. Everything went smoothly, until we got to Manila, in the Philippines, and that’s when a bit of excitement started, as we landed in a typhoon, literally. We tried to never stay on the ground at our fuel stops any longer than 50 minutes. The weather wasn’t horrible yet, but I didn’t want to delay our departure with the weather going down. I did take time for a conversation on our stop in Manila with the president of the Philippines.
Yes, he was a golfer. So, we met with Marcos. This was before he was overthrown. But when we went to takeoff we had a problem. We’re taking off in a typhoon, and now it’s bad. One of the first times in my flying career that I ever saw the water not break off the wing. It was raining so heavy I didn’t know if we were going to get airborne.
Then you’re heading for Wake Island, just a speck of land.
A rock. A runway on a rock. Our alternate airport, our contingency backup, on the journey to Wake Island was Guam. At the halfway point we found out we couldn’t get back to Manila because the typhoon was beating them up. So, we finally got in touch with Guam, and they tell us they’re evacuating because of another storm system. That gets things a bit exciting. We had no choice, we were going to Wake Island.
Were you giddy from the lack of sleep on that trip, or exhausted?
I was alert the whole time, I couldn’t have slept if they offered it to me. But when we finally made it back to Denver I had a couple of beers, crashed, and slept great.
Are there any qualities that allowed you to succeed as a golfer that helped you as a pilot?
A lot of similarities. You can go along for years and years flying and nothing really happens except the thrill of being up in the air. Then one day you run into an occasion where you should call upon some skill or patience and there’s a lot of situations in golf that are the same way. If you get into a tough situation on the golf course and you get all excited, you’re going to get into trouble. But airplanes have proven to me they are amply capable of taking care of stupid people.
I’ve heard that besides being a pilot that you also play some golf?
Secondary. [Laughs] First flying, second a lover, third golf.
Nah, golf will always be my number one.
For people like myself who are quite bad golfers, if you had to pick one tip that might universally improve their game, what would it be?
Don’t swing so hard. People really want to whack that ball. Go ahead and take a swing, but keep it gentle, until your accuracy improves and you become more confident. Then hit it hard.
What’s your favorite golf movie?
I don’t know that I have a favorite, because the people that have been used in golf films are very inadequate golfers. For instance, actor Glenn Ford in the Ben Hogan film Follow the Sun. He’s a great actor, and I like Glenn Ford, but it was inappropriate. They should select players, or at least a person who has some relation to the game. What are some of the other movies?
There’s always Caddyshack.
Caddyshack, as a comedy, was okay. What’s another one?
The Legend of Bagger Vance.
That one was all right.
What about flying films? Aviators like yourself are notoriously critical of flying movies.
Oh, I love flying films! The Right Stuff is good. And I really love the old WWI films, the flying scenes with the biplanes. As a matter of fact, I’m now on the Board of the Aviation Hall of Fame and I’ll be voting on the next group of inductees.
Another honor you’ve been awarded is the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When they selected me it was a great thrill—to be classed with people of that caliber, people that are real heroes. And, of course, it’s the Medal of Honor guys that do it, that pick you.
Golf has provided you incredible access. On your 37th birthday, a U.S. president showed up at your door. How did that happen?
[Laughs] General Eisenhower. Our friendship began at Augusta, when he was President of the United States. He expressed an interest in playing golf together. That started it and we became very close friends. The thing that was great is that we hung out and watched golf, but didn’t play. And we ate and just talked. For hours. He had the most amazing philosophies about life. He also used to spend a lot of time in Palm Springs, so I’d visit him there. We would just sit and watch golfers, have a beer, and talk. He would share his experiences, and it got to the point where I thought Ike just hung the moon.
The “best” part of his death, if you could use that word, was at the hospital, at Walter Reed, when they called to tell me they didn’t think he had much longer. Winnie [Palmer’s first wife of 45 years and mother of his two daughters] and I flew to D.C., and walked into his room, which was really the intensive care unit. He was sort of half-sitting up in the bed, and he leaned forward with a big smile across his face and said, “My god, it’s great to see you kids!” That’s the kind of guy he was.
With your popularity and image, it seems that you could win any race you enter. Why haven’t you gotten into politics?
Compromise. I just cannot compromise to the extent politics would require. I’ve had offers, but to be in politics you should compromise somewhere, and that’s something I just can’t do. Speaking of politics, I was just with George Bush yesterday, down in Ocean Reef. I was doing a little golf exhibition for his charity, the Points of Light Foundation. I call him 41, since we now have 43. It was great spending time with him, and I think he and Barbara will be coming here to stay at Bay Hill for Jeb’s inauguration [as Florida governor]. Forty-one is a good guy. I like the President, too, 43, but I don’t know him as well as I do his dad.
If you break golf down into the long game, short game, and putting, which part is most fun for you?
Driving! Absolutely. I could take you out and give you a lesson. We’d start with the irons, and then go into the woods. [Laughs] Now see? That went right by you!
Sorry, I panicked at the word “lesson.” You’ve got a tremendous amount of flying time, 20,000 hours, enough to rival the logbooks of most career airline pilots. Yet, you’ve never had a serious incident or accident. What do you attribute that to?
I think respect. Treating airplanes with great respect, and never assuming anything. I’ve had exceptional training, and learned that when you fly, you do it by the book. Flying can be so fun, but it demands giving it the respect it’s due. Because unlike in golf, a mistake is fatal.
Do you ever play golf by yourself? I don’t mean the range, but the course. Do you ever go out and just play a few holes all alone?
I do, especially when I want to work on my game. I love it. I did it when I was a kid, and I still do it.
Favorite time of day to play, early or late, sunrise or sunset?
Doesn’t matter, any time.
In terms of sheer beauty, what do you think is the prettiest golf course?
[Laughs] If I had one, I wouldn’t answer! But my answer is, I have built 250 of the most beautiful golf courses on the planet. How’s that? Besides, to pick just one course I’ve done, would slight all the others I’ve designed. Boy, if I said the 17th hole here at Bay Hill was my favorite, and I’d just built a new course for you, that wouldn’t go over very well.
Spoken like a true politician.
Ah, but it’s true. I’m not compromising.
What’s the worst course design you’ve come across?
Oh, I’ll stay out of controversy on that one.
Is there any location left where you’d really like to build a course?
There is one thing I haven’t done. And I still would like to do it. Do a golf course, in its entirety, just to satisfy my idiosyncrasies about how a golf course should look. Every golf course that I have ever been associated with, or have done, involved sticking to the owner’s wishes. Even my own here at Bay Hill is sticking to convention. I’d love to do a course someday that’s designed just the way I want to do it. It would be in a year-round atmosphere, and the nature of the soil and the topography would be something I would handpick.
I like sand. I like ocean. I like lakes. And sandstone. I love to work in sandstone. An example is my Oasis course in Nevada, just across from St. George, Utah. Sandstone is easy to work with and provides great settings. Semiahmoo in Washington State, that kind of course is fun. All golf courses are fun, but I’d like to do one that would be different. It would incorporate all the design elements that satisfy me, and it wouldn’t be like any course anyone has ever played.
Do you ever get over to Cape Canaveral to watch the Space Shuttle launches?
I’ve been invited a lot, but I’m waiting on an invitation from NASA to ask me to go up on the Shuttle.
Would you really ride the rocket?
Absolutely! How could you not?
Maybe you’ll break ground on the first lunar course?
Space tourism will happen! I’m a great believer in the things that I used to read in the comic books back when I was young. Inside the comics was a strip on the inside back cover of a character called Flash Gordon. They were flying—back in the 1930s—spacecraft with three fire-breathing engines on the back. And then it was invented, the Boeing 727! Science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars—all the things we see today on the screen—in 70 years we’ll be doing those same things.
What other changes do you think we’ll see in the future?
The wars we fight today will not happen. Of course, there will be political uprisings and people disagreeing forever and ever. It’s always been that way, always will be. But warfare will evolve. And the types of things that will happen are going to be out of this world. Developments in lasers, nuclear fusion, hydrogen, and nitrogen will be commonplace. The only thing I’ll miss about going away someday is that I won’t live to see those things happen.
What’s been the best thing about being Arnold Palmer?
I’ve been very fortunate. The best thing is that I had a father and a mother that made life real for me, and gave me the opportunity that I had. My father was a golf professional so in itself that was great. Then I was very fortunate to marry a woman who was very considerate. Actually, Winnie took care of me. I became very dependent in that respect, but I did my own thing and she supported me one-hundred percent. I was lucky in that regard.
And I would have to say living in America and doing the things I’ve been able to do. I would fight or kill to protect all the nice things I’ve been able to do. If I saw someone taking those things away from other people in the future, I would be very upset. I would do whatever I can to make sure that the kids coming along, that they have the same opportunities that I had.