HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Arnold Palmer thought long and hard 40 years ago about moving to Hilton Head. And it was easy to see why after the reception the legendary golfer received Thursday in his latest visit to the island.
Palmer was on hand to christen his latest signature course, a redesigned Wexford Plantation layout. He was cheered and celebrated by several hundred fans who turned out to revel in his every move. Palmer gained the undying affection of the region when he won the inaugural Heritage Classic in 1969, bringing national exposure to a largely unknown recreation area. He said he and late wife, Winnie, loved the area and considered locating here back in the late 1960s before choosing Bay Hill near Orlando, Fla., which hosts Palmer’s annual PGA Tour event each March.
Those feelings haven’t let up for either side more than four decades later.
“Winning here was very important in many ways,” Palmer said. “I loved Hilton Head and really considered settling here.”
The fans acted like he already had, following their idol’s every move and applauding everything he did, even shouting down a resident at the clinic who had some questions about how the redesigned 11th hole could lower his home’s resale value.
They laughed at Palmer’s jokes, snapped pictures with cellphones and clapped at just about everything he did.
“We all became part of ‘Arnie’s Army,’ didn’t we?” said Porter Morgan, a Wexford member.
Palmer took a tour of all 18 holes, then put on a clinic for spectators, showing off the swing that in its heyday won four Masters, a U.S. Open and a British Open among 62 PGA Tour titles. These days, the 82-year-old Palmer said he barely plays and does not practice the way he used to as his swing speed has slowed significantly.
“Someone asked, ‘Why don’t you have your spikes on?’ ” Palmer said. “I don’t even need them.”
Still, Palmer hit several crisp shots and took questions from the gallery.
He was asked about his start in golf and recounted how at 2, he began going to the course with his golf professional father, Deacon, because of Palmer’s newborn sister. His father fashioned clubs out of small sticks for his toddler to grip and swing. A few years later, Palmer was playing every day and practicing as often as he could.
He’s made some sacrifices because of age, using hybrid irons instead of the blades he struck as a younger man. Palmer said he still puts together his clubs from pieces sent to him.
Palmer kept urging those ringing his clinic area to push back, joking that he couldn’t be sure what direction his shots might fly. He need not have worried, striking the ball solidly on the new practice range built in January and February.
About his only wayward ball came on the ceremonial opening drive on the first tee when he hooked his shot into the trees. “No, that doesn’t count,” said Palmer, sounding like every duffer who ever played the game. The crowd egged him on for a mulligan, which Palmer struck much better to land in the fairway.
The driver will be framed and hung in Wexford Plantation’s clubhouse.
Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin read a proclamation making Thursday “Arnold Palmer Day” on the island. “I don’t know that I deserve it, but it’s fun,” Palmer said.
Palmer said he followed the Heritage tournament’s recent search for a replacement title sponsor after Verizon left and did what he could to encourage businesses to look at backing the tournament. RBC stepped in this past June to sponsor the PGA Tour event for the next five years.
Palmer keeps up with the game and enjoys watching young, rising stars such as Webb Simpson and Rory McIlroy reinvent the sport.
Palmer wishes the business side of the game was as strong as what he sees on the PGA Tour. He said his design company is down from 29 people to three as the demand for courses has declined. He is among those bidding to design the Olympic golf course when the sport returns for the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016.
He also hopes golf’s young bombers don’t make Harbour Town Golf Links, site of Palmer’s Heritage victory 42 years ago, and similar smaller, tighter layouts obsolete. Palmer remembered the narrow fairways and small greens designed by Pete Dye and Jack Nicklaus.
“It was so narrow, I had to walk single file with my caddie,” he said. “But the straightness I hit it with is really what afforded me the championship.”