ORLANDO, Fla. – Arnold Palmer still has “it.” Without hitching his pants or hitting a golf ball, Palmer did what he’s always done. He made golf fans smile. And applaud. A lot.
This time Palmer simply told stories and the more than 100 members of the United States Golf Association members program in attendance drank it in like ambrosia.
It took two emails for the event at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge to sell out. Those who jumped at the chance paid $1,276 for single occupancy, $2,252 for double occupancy (room, golf, meals included). Young and old traveled from 26 states, including brothers Steve and Connor Brown from Los Angeles, who were 12 and 10 respectively, and enjoying a Christmas present they’ll remember a lifetime (though they didn’t earn the most sky miles – one couple flew from Norway).
There could be no more appropriate host for the event than Palmer, the man who launched the members program in 1975. Indeed, the USGA presented Palmer a framed photo immortalizing the moment when he enrolled President Gerald Ford as its first member.
The Golf Channel’s Gary Williams, who served as interviewer, began by sharing the first time he saw Palmer in person. Williams was all of 7 years old when he attended the Greater Greensboro Open with his father, who pointed to Palmer and said, “That’s the John Wayne of golf.”
Pretty soon it was hard to remember that Palmer won his last major in 1964 and Wayne made his last film in 1976. Palmer’s wife, Kit, warned him to keep his answers short. But once the stories commenced, he couldn’t resist. Over the course of the next hour, Palmer regaled attendees with tales of his triumph over Frank Stranahan at the 1954 U.S. Amateur (“The first guy to congratulate me was his father. He had tears in his eyes.”), his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus (“We worked to outdo each other. Even today. That’s what it’s all about.”), and his enthusiasm for golf in the 2016 Olympics (“I’m hoping it’s one of the most successful things we can do for the game.”).
Palmer remembered the good, the bad and even the ugly, detailing the costly 7 he made from a tree stump at the 1963 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where he lost in a three-man playoff the next day to Julius Boros.
Then Williams leafed through questions from the audience and selected one from USGA member Bill Morgan, who wondered about one of Palmer’s most infamous holes-in-one.
Palmer looked straight at Kit and asked, “Is it okay, babe?”
Laughter reigned. Once he got a thumbs up, Palmer recounted how after finishing 18 holes his group retreated to the locker room for a few drinks. Someone proposed they go back out for more. To no surprise, money was involved. “Just a few dimes and nickels,” Palmer said in an innocent voice.
So an eightsome emerged to play Bay Hill’s “Short Turn,” consisting of Nos. 15-18. They started at No. 10. When they arrived at the 238-yard par-3, 17th hole, Palmer considered the conditions, grabbed the 2-iron and asked his caddie, TomCat, if he agreed.
“No sir, you hit that 3-iron,” he said.
Palmer relented. When he dumped a 3-iron in the water fronting the green, he glowered at TomCat.
“Frankly, I was pissed,” he recalled.
More laughter ensued in the room.
Palmer continued. He demanded the 2-iron and re-teed. To his opponents, he predicted he was going to knock it in for par.
“They all laughed at me,” he said. “Hell, I would’ve laughed at me too.”
Lo and behold, the ball leapt off Palmer’s 2-iron, rifled straight for the flag, landed 15-feet short of the hole and rolled in for par the hard way. Palmer glanced at TomCat and said, “See, I told you it was a 2-iron.”
“No sir, Mr. Palmer,” said TomCat, “you hit that fat.”
And with that the room broke into knee-slapping laughter. It was contagious.
Any concerns that Palmer is slowing down at the age of 81 were relieved when Williams reported that Palmer was seen on the treadmill earlier that day at 6:20 a.m.
Without missing a beat, Palmer retorted: “That was half an hour after I started.”
Speaking for everyone in the room Williams concluded the evening by saying to Palmer, “Nobody in my lifetime has ever loved the game back more than you.”
Heads nodded in agreement. When the applause died down, Palmer said, “I think we’re out of here.”
And he was off. It was time walk his dog, Mulligan.