Athlon Sits Down With Golf's Elder Statesman
There have been better players with prettier swings. But there has never been a more important golfer than The King, Arnold Palmer. He almost single-handedly quadrupled purses, grew the game beyond the country clubs and brought it into our living rooms, and assembled an Army of devoted followers. He won — and lost — with more flair than any other athlete.
As hard as it might be to believe, this spring marks the 50th anniversary of Arnold Palmer’s last major championship victory. He won the 1964 Masters at Augusta National, earning his fourth green jacket in seven years and giving him a seventh professional major title.
Although there would be several close calls, there would be no more major titles, although Palmer kept contending for another decade, winning his last PGA Tour event, the 62nd of his illustrious career, at the Bob Hope Desert Classic in 1973. He would keep competing into his 50s and go on to support the Champions Tour for years.
Today, at age 84, Palmer remains a top earner in the golf endorsement world and one of the game’s most prominent figures, a beloved elder statesman. In addition to myriad business interests, Palmer hosts his own PGA Tour event, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, which will be contested for the 36th straight year at the Bay Hill Club in Orlando.
Athlon gained an audience with The King to ask him a variety of questions on all manner of subjects.
Athlon Sports: What current player reminds you most of yourself?
Arnold Palmer: I’ve had a lot of people remark on who might be a lot like I am, and the name that comes up most of the time is Phil Mickelson. He’s left-handed and I’m right-handed, so we’re not similar there, but the compliments that he gets and the way he treats the fans and a lot of the way he plays the game … I suppose if I look I can see some things I enjoy doing and did in my career. I think he’s a very thoughtful guy, and that is certainly in his favor as far as my thoughts are concerned. And he’s a good closer. He’s had some unfortunate things at the U.S. Open, but he has finished very well most of the time.
Athlon: Speaking of Mickelson, what do you make of his British Open win and the way he won it at Muirfield?
Palmer: That was a great victory. He came on very good. He seemed to be playing with a consistent desire to win the championship. It was positive throughout. That was obvious in his play.
Athlon: What is your take on the anchored putter debate? Such a stroke is scheduled to be banned starting Jan. 1, 2016.
Palmer: I’m a little outspoken as far as the anchored putter is concerned. I’m opposed to it. You shouldn’t need to or be allowed to anchor a club against your body in any part of the golf swing. Of course you can find people who will argue with that and find fault with my opinion. When you touch your body you’re getting an aid that isn’t meant to be in the golf swing.
Athlon: Speaking of the rules, a new Decision (18/4) was enacted for 2014 that stipulates if a high definition video or replay is the only way to determine that a ball moved, the player will not be penalized. (Tiger Woods got a two-stroke penalty under a similar scenario at the BMW Championship.) Do you like this change?
Palmer: I think I go back to the rules of the game. It’s the player's responsibility to charge himself with the penalty. If he thinks he has done something wrong, it’s a penalty — whether he sees it with the naked eye or with HD isn’t the matter. It’s his own opinion of what he did during that transaction.
Athlon: Who is in your dream foursome, among people you have played with?
Palmer: It is very difficult to narrow it down. I certainly have people I’ve enjoyed playing golf with. One of the things I’ve always said is if you play 18 holes of golf with a person, you have an opportunity to really get to know that person. A lot of the people I have played with I have really come to that conclusion; it is a way of getting to learn about a person. So who would they be? My father would be one of the most interesting people in my group. Dwight D. Eisenhower would be one I enjoyed being with and playing golf with. I could go down a list. Jack Nicklaus, of course — people like that. Gary Player. People I have respected and enjoyed through the years. I could name hundreds of people I have enjoyed being with. I think of Bob Hope as another one. These are people I have thoroughly enjoyed.
Athlon: Who’s left that you wish you could play with?
Palmer: I was on my way one time to play golf with Jack Kennedy in Palm Beach. He hurt his back the day before and had to cancel the golf. That was not long before he was killed and I never played with him. I would have enjoyed that and trying to get to know him better.
Athlon: Do you regret that you didn’t get to play with today’s equipment in your prime? Do you think modern equipment has been good for the game?
Palmer: I suppose I have mixed feelings about that. Having played as far back as wooden shafted golf clubs and now seeing what they are doing with shafts alone, titanium … wood is a thing of the past now in golf clubs. So I’m not sure sometimes how things might be different. It’s very difficult to say. One day I did a competition with myself and I used the old model golf clubs with wooden shafts and leather grips and played one ball, and the other I used all the modern stuff, the graphite shafts, the titanium heads and so forth. The difference for nine holes was 2 strokes. But the modern stuff won…
I do think the modern golf ball, the modern shafts, the heads, the technology that has been put into the game is certainly an opportunity to improve your performance. And I think that is good for the game, for those trying to play the game.
Athlon: Do you feel it would still help to have the golf ball reined in?
Palmer: I think there is no question about the fact that some day in the near future we’re going to have to bring the ball back, cut it down. Bring it back to a more playable situation as far as distance is concerned. If technology continues to improve… and that takes in a lot of territory — dimples of golf ball, type of material we use, composition of the golf ball. I feel strongly those things will have to be adjusted.
Athlon: It's a Ryder Cup year. Are you surprised that the Ryder Cup has evolved into one of the biggest events in golf?
Palmer: Not really. I think the Ryder Cup was something that started with the rivalry of the nations involved. It’s a good competition, and I thought it was from the beginning. It will continue to be a good competition. I suppose it will continue to improve, and maybe there will be different rules or means of selecting teams. But that is progress and that will be something that is probably inevitable.
Athlon: Could someone today serve as playing captain as you did? (Palmer was the last U.S. playing captain, at the 1963 Ryder Cup at East Lake.)
Palmer: It was certainly fun for me. It was something where I was thoroughly honored to be the captain and to be playing on the same team. It was a lot of fun. And of course I enjoyed the competition and I enjoyed my team. They were very supportive in the matches that we were playing. I’m not sure how that would work out today.
Athlon: Why do you think the U.S. has struggled in the Ryder Cup? (Europe is 7-2 going back to 1995.)
Palmer: I think golf is becoming more international as days go by. The international community and golf community is certainly getting better and better all the time. The competition will be something that we all have seen grow and take note of, and it’s been great for the Ryder Cup.
Athlon: Do you get into the Ryder Cup as fan?
Palmer: I certainly am interested. Some of these matches, as a fan, you’ve got to have an interest in what’s happening. And if you know the golf courses and those situations, it becomes exciting and interesting.
Athlon: Is the Golf Channel everything you hoped it would be? (Palmer helped found the channel, which launched in 1995.)
Palmer: I always thought the Golf Channel was something that would be great. I have to admit that in the early days I was skeptical of what you would do for 24 hours. Working with that as I did, it was quite interesting. Of course I think the Golf Channel has done marvels for the game and the golfing public. It has been a godsend. And it’s something that will continue to be healthy for the golf public.
Athlon: If you had to pick one career highlight, what would it be?
Palmer: I don’t think there is one. I’ve had some good and bad. Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Certainly I’ve been very fortunate that I was able to win a lot of golf tournaments, including a lot coming from behind. I’ve lost a few, too, that have taken me down. And in all instances I feel it’s a great opportunity that I’ve had to be able to play and compete in those circumstances to way back in the middle 1950s.
Athlon: Is there a biggest disappointment?
Palmer: I haven’t won the PGA Championship. That is certainly one that I immediately think of. I would have loved to have added it to my resume. But I had a lot of success with the PGA Championship. I had a couple that I finished second in and some other close calls. (Palmer had six top-10s at the PGA, including two runner-up finishes.) I literally just didn’t make the shot that I needed to make at the right time. It’s sort of like how Sam Snead never won the U.S. Open.
Athlon: What is your take on reigning Masters champion Adam Scott’s future?
Palmer: I think he is a wonderful young man. I think he has a fantastic future in the game. He’s got a great golf swing, great personality. He’s learned to compete around the world. I feel very strongly about him. I am very pro Adam Scott.
Athlon: Tiger Woods will be trying to win your tournament for the ninth time at Bay Hill. To what do you attribute his success?
Palmer: I think he knows the golf course very well. He came here and played as a junior and won, won on this golf course as an amateur. He is very familiar with playing golf in the central part of Florida. And of course Bay Hill is a course that is somewhat tuned to his game. That is quite obvious given his number of victories.
Athlon: Do you have a personal recipe for an Arnold Palmer?
Palmer: I made the whole thing. I did it for a special reason and it has worked out very well. I am very pleased with the drink, I am very happy that people have supported it and enjoyed it. I put the combination together originally and that is what we do. And that is a secret!
This interview appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.