Palmer has uncommon connection with fans, press

Arnold Palmer photographed in his office with his dog, Mulligan at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

Arnold Palmer photographed in his office with his dog, Mulligan at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Hunting an offbeat story almost three decades ago, Cleveland Plain Dealer golf writer George Sweda asked Arnold Palmer if he would join him in the Sears men’s department at Randall Park Mall. In town for a senior tournament, Palmer obliged him for about an hour one afternoon. No one recognized him, save for the incredulous young man who saw the golf legend’s photograph on a clothing tag.

During one of his next visits to Cleveland, Palmer asked his scribe pal what stunt he had for him this time. Well, Sweda told him, “I’d like to take you to my high school reunion this weekend and see what kind of reaction we get.” And so the two hopped into a courtesy car and went to the dance together for a few minutes.

“The deejay paused the music and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, one of the stars of your class, with one of the legends in sports,’ ” recalled Sweda, now retired. “It was hilarious. Arnold couldn’t have been nicer. But that’s him. We always had fun.”

Some 30 years later, Palmer smiles at such stories that underscore his uncommon connection with the public and press. At 82, his career has spanned the soaring stages of all mediums – newspaper, radio, television, Internet and social, though he stops short of tweeting and texting. Along the way, he became something of the sporting model for public relations, never forgetting childhood lessons of kindness, befriending the Fourth Estate, embracing the repartee, ushering in golf’s TV age with charges and charisma and help from friends Bob Hope and Dwight Eisenhower.

“I was aware of the reaction the writers took to people who didn’t give them the courtesy of answering their questions,” Palmer said from his office at Bay Hill Club & Lodge when asked to explain his bonding with people. “That was important. I spent a lot of time with (sportswriters), talking to them and horsing around with them. I enjoyed it. They’d tell me stories and get on my case. I didn’t mind it. I loved it.”

The mutual trust was forged in a different era, when news media were less intrusive and the reporting not as vast or instant or critical. Yet, while writers and players aren’t as chummy now, the same human principles apply, to hear Palmer.

Coincidentally, the predetermined inquiry into his public relations came a day after Tiger Woods bristled at a reporter at this month’s Honda Classic. So philosophy meshed with current events during the Palmer question-answer session.

“He has to be easy with the press,” Palmer said of Woods. “He should have an interview like I’m doing with you. All you have to do is get in a squabble with a writer or broadcaster and you’re putting a mark on your life. They can make you feel like a (jerk) the rest of your life. There’s no point to it. What’s the point of my arguing with you? I don’t get anyplace, unless I start writing about you. And who’s going to read it?

“Point is, you can be congenial and nice, and it’ll work. That’s all I’ve ever done. My father always said to me, ‘Don’t be nasty. To anybody.’ ” Palmer pounded on his desk for effect, then added, “So I practiced that, treating other people like you’d want to be treated.”

Palmer differed on that approach with his longtime agent, Mark McCormack, founder of IMG. McCormack thought his prized client overdid things and was too nice. But Palmer smiled onward.

A college student covering the Western Open in Chicago in the mid-1960s did a 15-minute Palmer interview, only to discover he hadn’t turned on his tape recorder. “Turn it on and we’ll do it again,” Palmer told him.

He took on the role of ambassador in part because he thought golf needed to attract more prize money. “Little did I think it would get to where it is now,” he said.

Long an avid newspaper reader, Palmer not only has mixed well with golf journalists over the years, he has hired them. Bob Drum of The Pittsburgh Press, whom Dan Jenkins labeled the “man who invented Arnold Palmer,” wrote Palmer’s first book. Doc Giffin has been Palmer’s personal assistant since being hired away from his PGA Tour press secretary job 45½ years ago. Bev Norwood has run the Bay Hill tournament media center since the 1970s.

“I’ve always thought people like him because they sense he likes them,” said Giffin, who estimates Palmer has signed more than 1 million autographs, written meticulously so they are legible.

“Drum counseled him to be polite to writers. And it was his own natural instinct to be nice. Over 45 years, there have been people that I thought were insufferable and that Arnold shouldn’t pay attention to them, but he was nice. I’ve never seen him run anybody off. He has a hard time saying no.”

Drum was to Palmer what O.B. Keeler was to Bobby Jones, covering his favorite subject from junior golf to international glory. A larger-than-life character who amused Palmer, Drum was known to eat, drink and even travel with his famous Pennsylvania buddy. The dynamics of their relationship were never more significant than in 1960.

After 54 holes of the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, Palmer was in 15th place, seven strokes behind leader Mike Souchak. In the locker room before the last round, Palmer asked Drum what a closing 65 for 280 would get him.

“He said, ‘For you it’ll do nothing,’ ” Palmer recalled. “He was very surly. As a friend, that was not nice. I knew why. Like me, Souchak was his buddy.”

As it happened, Palmer birdied six of the first seven holes and then saw Drum walking down the fairway at the eighth.

“What are you doing out here?” Palmer asked.

“I heard you got something going,” Drum said.

“Why don’t you go follow your friend,” Palmer shot back, half-kidding.

Moments later, Palmer bogeyed the eighth, missing a short putt. But he shot 65–280 and won his lone Open title.

A couple of weeks later, Palmer and Drum flew to Ireland together for the Canada (now World) Cup, then to the British Open. On that trip, Palmer suggested the modern grand slam should consist of the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and PGA. His biographer beat the drum, and the rest is history.

“I said it will become quite the thing someday,” recalled Palmer, winner of seven major championships. “He made it a big thing within a month.”

Drum got British media on board with the idea. It helped that Palmer, who finished second at that ’60 Open at St. Andrews, and the U.K. writers got along well. In fact, they persuaded Palmer to stay over for the next week’s French Open, telling him that they could get him into the field, Giffin said.

Or so they thought. Palmer flew to Paris on a military plane, but the French didn’t let him play because he hadn’t entered the tournament himself. No hard feelings, though. Five years later, Palmer entertained the British press at his Latrobe, Pa., home when the PGA Championship was at Laurel Valley.

Palmer liked bantering with the game’s storytellers. The needle came out often. Palmer saw legendary Pittsburgh journalist Myron Cope on the first tee of a celebrity event not long after Cope said on air that golfers weren’t athletes. “Well now,” Palmer jabbed, “let’s see how a real athlete hits the ball.”

While playing Isleworth in Windermere, Fla., in the late 1980s, a visiting golf writer drove his cart to Palmer’s onsite residence, only to have him notice the writer was using MacGregor Muirfield Nicklaus irons.

“Where’d you get those?” Palmer asked.

“Jack sent them to me,” he said.

“Well, go in the garage and get what you want.”

The writer suggested a set be sent instead.

A few holes later, Palmer joined the group and said, “I’m your opponent. Let’s see how good those Nicklaus clubs are.”

Hall of Famer Lanny Wadkins, who attended Wake Forest on a Palmer scholarship, says he marveled as a young professional when observing Palmer’s patience and grace with people.

“He’s a special person, but part of it was the era, too,” Wadkins said. “It was a lot easier to be honest and open then because it wasn’t going to end up on someone’s Twitter or on YouTube video taken on a cellphone. You have to think twice about things today as opposed to 40 years ago.”

Today, Palmer owns two golf clubs and part of Pebble Beach Golf Links, hosts a PGA Tour event, owns a car dealership, is building a Latrobe hotel, oversees a course-design business and, even as an octogenarian, remains a major commercial player on Madison Avenue. He spends five days per week in his office and plays golf about once a week, with customers or friends.

“I played yesterday, and I hate myself,” he said, smiling, in yet another interview, one in a series of thousands. “It’s very humiliating not to be able to play golf the way I once did.

“But it’s better than being on the other side.”

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