Bay Hill buddies: Finsterwald, Palmer continue friendly rivalry

Dow Finsterwald (left) and longtime friend Arnold Palmer hang out in his office at Bay Hill, site of this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Dow Finsterwald (left) and longtime friend Arnold Palmer hang out in his office at Bay Hill, site of this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational.

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dow Finsterwald rakes another range ball. It’s a brisk March morning as he breaks in a new set of irons. Here at Bay Hill, Finsterwald and his wife, Linda, are treated like royalty. The Finsterwalds first bought property near the course in 1981. They have spent their winters here for one primary reason: to be near “The King,” Arnold Palmer, who lives in the same condominium complex.

“I generally add that he’s on the high-rent floor,” Finsterwald said.

For 65 years, their friendship has endured, two kindred spirits who drove the Tour, roomed together and were nearly unbeatable as partners on the course, though they once lost to LPGA standouts Mickey Wright and Barbara Romack.

Finsterwald, born Sept. 6, 1929, is four days older than Palmer. They first met at Raleigh Country Club in North Carolina in spring 1948, when Finsterwald played for Ohio University and Palmer for Wake Forest. Palmer threw a front-nine 29 at him.

“That was my introduction to Arn,” said Finsterwald, who will attend the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge this week. “Quite a rude awakening to how good he already was and would be.”

Finsterwald also learned an early lesson that Palmer thrived on pressure. At another Ohio-Wake match, they were tied at the turn when Palmer upped the ante: “I’ll betcha a tub of beer I shoot 32 or better on the back side.”

This time Palmer shot 31. After stints in the military – Finsterwald in the Air Force, Palmer in the Coast Guard – both won their first Tour events in 1955. Before long they were partners in early-week money games, and their friendship blossomed.

Palmer flashed back to a match more than 50 years ago against Frank Stranahan and Al Besselink in Hesperia, Calif. Having already fleeced their opponents out of all the money, Palmer said Stranahan called for an emergency nine to recoup losses. Here Finsterwald picks up the thread: “Stranahan said, ‘Let’s be serious this nine.’ Well, Stranahan had this vicuna overcoat. It was khaki-colored, with one button at the neck and a belt around the waist. It was stylish and Arn admired it. He said, ‘I’ll play you for your coat.’ ”

Palmer wagered $200 of his own money against Stranahan’s overcoat, then made sure he didn’t have to dip into his wallet. Palmer has owned the jacket since. He even had a new lining installed. “I still love it,” Palmer said.

The duo took on all comers. On another memorable occasion, Finsterwald arranged a Tuesday morning game during Masters week in 1958 against Jack Burke Jr. and Ben Hogan. Palmer already had won the St. Petersburg Open that spring. He lost a playoff to Howie Johnson at the Azalea Open in Wilmington, N.C., on the Monday of the Masters, and drove through the night to Augusta. The next day, an exhausted Palmer was off his game, but Finsterwald carried the team to victory. They collected $35. Afterward, the four retired to the locker room. Palmer recalled that Hogan and Burke didn’t offer to sit with them. Yet, Palmer was within earshot to hear Hogan ask Burke, “How did this guy Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?”

Palmer burned with animosity. “I think Hogan must’ve been trying to pull his chain,” Finsterwald said. “Hogan couldn’t have been oblivious to the success Arnold was having.”

“If Hogan was yanking my chain,” Palmer said, “he was successful.”

So was Palmer that week. He won the first of his four Masters titles.

Later that year, Finsterwald won his lone major, the first PGA Championship contested at stroke play. It’s the one major that Palmer never won, leading friends to say that together they complete the grand slam.

The city of Athens, Ohio, threw Dow Finsterwald Day for its native son at Athens Country Club, a nine-hole Donald Ross design in the Appalachian foothills.

On Sept. 25, 1958, Finsterwald was feted with a key to the city and a hero’s parade, but the day is recorded in the history books for another reason: It marked the first time Palmer and an 18-year-old Ohio Open champion named Jack Nicklaus teed it up.

Finsterwald fondly remembers the driving contest from the elevated first tee. Palmer smoked one of his low bullets and reached the first green some 321 yards away. A then-beefy Nicklaus lumbered to the tee and smashed a tape-measure blast more than 350 yards, over the green. A rivalry was born. Not to be outdone, Palmer shot 62 to break Finsterwald’s course record by one.

Some 20 years later, Palmer and Finsterwald returned to Athens for an Ohio University fundraiser and, wouldn’t you know it, Palmer drove the first green again. He turned to Finsterwald and said, “That’s the one thing I wanted to do today.”

Finsterwald had two legitimate shots to win the Masters, only to be beaten by his best buddy. He never dwelled on what could’ve been. “What’s the expression?” Finsterwald said. “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” In 1960 he finished two strokes out of a playoff with Palmer when he was assessed a two-stroke penalty for practice putting during the first round. Two years later they were locked in a tense duel when Palmer reeled off birdies on two of the last three holes to force an 18-hole playoff. He defeated Finsterwald and Gary Player the next day.

“Dow was always one of my best friends, but I wanted to beat him every time we played,” Palmer said.

The depth of their friendship may be best measured during two of the lowest moments of Palmer’s career. After losing the 1962 U.S. Open to Nicklaus in a playoff, a disconsolate Palmer phoned to check on Finsterwald, who was grieving the loss of his father. On the eve of the tournament, Palmer had shouldered the responsibility of breaking the news to him that his father had suffered a heart attack. And after Palmer’s most heartbreaking setback, a playoff defeat against Billy Casper in the 1966 U.S. Open, Palmer flew directly from San Francisco to spend time with Finsterwald in Colorado. When they went to dinner that night, Palmer attracted a crowd.

“Dishwashers were coming out of the kitchen to get his autograph,” Finsterwald said. “He accommodated them in such a gracious manner you would’ve thought he had won. I don’t think in all the years I’ve known him, I’ve ever seen him be rude to anybody or be short in any form.”

Finsterwald won 11 tournaments during an eight-year span and was named PGA Player of the Year in 1958. In his day, cashing in on a major meant landing a plum head-professional job. In 1963 he left the tour to raise a family and became director of golf at The Broadmoor resort in Colorado Springs, Colo., a position he held for 28 years.

Finsterwald always kept a hand in the professional game. He was captain of the 1977 U.S. Ryder Cup team, vice president of the PGA (1976-1978), a member of the USGA Rules Committee (1977-1979) and has served as a rules official at the Masters since 1978. His impartiality was tested in 1993 when Palmer steered his tee shot to the right at Augusta’s seventh hole and requested a rules official. Finsterwald arrived first and listened as Palmer pleaded his case for a drop from a muddy area behind a pine tree. Finsterwald ruled that the lie did not qualify as “unusual damage,” declaring that the mud hadn’t been gouged by the gallery. From Palmer came this dry retort: “Well, there goes a good friendship.”

And then he smiled, an indication that their bond always would be thicker than mud.

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