How do you fit the King for golf clubs?
Answer: With enthusiasm, because the King loves golf clubs. This is 83-year-old Arnold Palmer we’re talking about, and the job of fitting him has been bestowed on Jeff Opheim, Callaway Golf’s tour rep for the Champions Tour.
Opheim has plenty of experience working with royalty. He has been a Callaway employee for 16 years, including a run of 10 years as Callaway’s LPGA Tour rep alongside the ruler of women’s golf, Annika Sorenstam.
Now that Opheim is with Palmer on a regular basis, he has a message for Mr. Gary Player and Mr. Jack Nicklaus: Watch out, because the King has been practicing for the official opening ceremony at the Masters, where the Big Three will hit tee shots on the first hole.
“He really wants to hit it past those other guys,” Opheim said, without reflecting on the fact that the 77-year-old Player is six years younger and the 73-year-old Nicklaus is just a kid, comparatively speaking.
To get ready for the Masters, Palmer has been experimenting with longer drivers for more clubhead speed and more length. “Some of those drivers are 46 inches, and some are even longer,” Opheim said.
Callaway standard length for drivers is 46 inches for the X Hot, 45.77 inches for the X Hot Pro, and 45.5 inches for the Razr Fit Xtreme.
Palmer is stubborn like that – always trying to win, always trying to improve. It was the hallmark of his professional career, in which he won 62 PGA Tour titles and seven major championships (four Masters, two British Opens and one U.S. Open). It is still the hallmark of the man universally referred to as the King.
According to Opheim, Palmer still grips his own clubs, preferring a wrapped leather grip from Lamkin, still grinds the soles of his wedges, and still tinkers around with just about every club that comes his way. Palmer has golf club workshops at his various residences, and he loves doing what he has done all his golf life – using machines to measure, bend, change and refine the characteristics of golf clubs.
For 2013, Callaway sent him a set of X Hot irons and X Hot Pro irons. Palmer’s response: “Where are the X Forged irons?”
X Forged are the irons currently used by many members of Callaway professional staff. They are aimed primarily at younger, highly skilled players. Well, Palmer certainly is highly skilled. Only a handful of men in golf history have won more majors, and a strong argument could be made that nobody has collected as many fans or inspired as much fervor about the game.
Palmer likes to experiment with every club that Callaway produces, including all prototypes. He uses both S shafts and R shafts, depending on the construction of the particular shaft and how he feels.
“I’m not the guy to tell him he needs an R shaft,” Opheim said honestly. “If he wants to hit an S, then S is the right shaft.”
Palmer prefers not to talk publicly about his golf club specs or his golf game in general, so he makes a lot of jokes to deflect attention.
“Who’s 83, anyway?” he said at the recent Arnold Palmer Invitational. “There must be a mistake on the birth certificate.”
Palmer, known for carrying 20 or more clubs in his oversized golf bag, quipped, “I hear they did away with the 14-club rule, isn’t that right?”
In serious competition, in the fourth round of the 2001 Bob Hope Classic, the 71-year-old Palmer posted a 71 to become the first player to shoot his age in a PGA Tour event since Sam Snead accomplished the feat 22 years earlier.
Today, though, he has mostly abandoned tournament golf to become the great golf club experimenter and offering golf club advice to many of his friends.
“His insights about golf equipment are really pretty amazing,” Opheim said. “I’ve learned a lot just listening.”
Opheim has his own advice for senior amateurs, based on his many experiences with Palmer:
1. With today’s supercharged fairway woods, such as Callaway’s X Hot series, try a 17-degree club in place of a stronger-lofted fairway wood of 15 degrees or less. The 17-degree model is much easier to hit off tight lies, and a higher trajectory probably will mean greater carry distances.
2. Replace the long irons with hybrids. Most senior players already have done this, but the King’s endorsement means that it’s okay for everybody. Palmer plays at times with no iron longer than a 5-iron in his bag.
3. Carry more wedges and learn to hit a variety of shots around the green. Practice should be focused primarily on the short game.
4. Try a 46-inch driver to achieve extra distance, but don’t keep the club in your bag if you can’t hit the ball in the middle of the clubface. Offcenter hits generally mean less yardage, not more.
5. Remember all the joy and friendship created by golf. When the King is in a philosophical mood, that’s the way he looks at the game.
“I feel very, very lucky to be in this position, to be around Mr. Palmer, to observe and learn everything I have,” Opheim said. “People ask me what I do for a living, and I could say, ‘Oh, I hang around Arnold Palmer and other famous golfers.’ But I don’t brag about it. I know how fortunate I am.”