Arnold Palmer Invitational: Tales of meeting 'Mr. Palmer' resonate across golf

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Tales of meeting 'Mr. Palmer' resonate across golf

PGA Tour

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Tales of meeting 'Mr. Palmer' resonate across golf

By

(Editor’s Note: This story ran in the March 2017 issue of Golfweek.)

Brad Faxon would get to know Arnold Palmer when he moved to Orlando and practiced and played out of Bay Hill. But he’d never met the man when they were paired at the 1984 Players Championship along with Peter Jacobsen. Faxon said there are a couple of things from that first round at TPC Sawgrass that stick in his mind:

“Arnold was 55, I think, and I was 22, and Arnold happened to be standing on the first tee when we were called to hit,” Faxon said. “I was in the tent, getting my scorecard. Arnold is standing out there, and the starter begins (reading Faxon’s card), ‘Playing in his first year on the PGA Tour …’
Arnold Palmer Invitational 2017 Tee Times Fantasy Rankings“So everybody is laughing. So I hit, Peter hits, Arnold is introduced as playing like his 33rd year on Tour, and he outdrives the two of us by a yard or two. Well, he just loved that. He loved stuff like that.

I’d never met him before, so I’m calling him Mr. Palmer. We’re walking off the first green, to the second hole, there’s the gallery ropes, and it was the biggest crowd I’d played in front of to that point. Arnold looked at me and said, ‘Son, if you want to have yourself a long and successful career’ – here he was, spreading the word – ‘you look people in the eye when you walk. Don’t look down. Always make eye contact.’ That turned out to be something prophetic. I thought that was fantastic.

“Later that day Arnold told me that was the last year he was going to play golf competitively. On the 14th hole, the hard par 4, there used to be a bunch of palm trees up the right side, and he pushed his drive, and it’s stymied a couple inches behind a tree. ‘Look at that ball,’ he said, and he was about to complain about what a bad break it was … and then he said this to me, and I’ve never forgotten it:

“I hit it there,” he said. “I hit it there.”

“I use that every time I want to get down on myself. It was such a simple answer.”

________________________________

2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational Bay Hill PGA Tour

Arnold Palmer waved the ceremonial sword after Ernie Els won at Bay Hill. (Golfweek File Photo)

Ernie Els was 22 when he arrived to play the PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis in 1992, and he received a special pairing: He’d play alongside Palmer. Here’s his recollection of that week, as well as the relationship he’d eventually build with The King:

“In ’92, I played with Arnold at the PGA, which Pricey (Nick Price) won in St. Louis. On the back nine of the second day, he invited me to come and play in his event the next year. I was like, ‘Seriously?” And then I went and played with him at Bay Hill in ’93.

“The weather was awful (at Bay Hill). I remember him hitting driver-driver onto the green at 18 (a par 4) and two-putting to make the cut. And I remember I missed the cut by a shot. He made the cut. He was like 62 or 63.

“The year I won (at Bay Hill), in 1998, the first time, I remember having beers with him in the locker room. I just became No. 1 in the world, beating Tiger (Woods) and Davis (Love III) in 36 holes (on Sunday), and we sat in the locker room until late, just drinking beer and talking. I remember him saying that was the way he remembers the Tour. That was sweet. I had a lot of great times with Arnold. He was always giving me a little shove in the ribs, you know, like, ’C’mon, go win the Masters.’ He’s real. He’s not some of the other guys who just want to be in the media. He’s for real. He’s always been for real.

“He always had a liking for me for some reason. We hit it off a little bit, we were kind of joking a little bit when we were at the PGA (in ’92). There were just people everywhere, and the guy is 60-whatever years old, and all these ladies are throwing their numbers at him. And I’m walking to the tee, and I’m like, ‘Hey … this isn’t too bad,’ and he gives me the number and says, ‘Why don’t you give her a call, son.’ I was like, ‘You’re the man.’ Just amazing. He kind of saw something in me, and I definitely saw just a normal man.

“We’ve got to look at what he’s done for the game. He’s the type of a man, we sat in the locker room having beers, he was saying, ‘This is what I like, this is the way the Tour should be, this is the way the Tour was.’ And then he’ll be with the (U.S.) president, having dinner at the White House. You know what I’m saying? He could relate to anybody. If anybody could have run for president and made it work, it would have been him. He’s an everyday American person, but he’s always bigger than life. He relates to anybody. … One of a kind.”

________________________________

Arnold Palmer Davis Love III Bay Hill 2017 Tee Times Fantasy Golf

Davis Love III first met Arnold Palmer when he was a boy and his father, Davis Love Jr., was playing on the PGA Tour. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Davis Love III’s father, Davis Jr., competed on the PGA Tour with Arnold Palmer, so the younger Love figures he has known Palmer since he was 8 years old. Even when he got out on Tour, Davis still would call him Mr. Palmer, and jokingly, to make him stop, Palmer would always counter by calling Davis “Mr. Love.”

“One of my proudest call-outs, you would say,” said Love, “we were sitting at a Presidents Cup dinner and Arnold got up to talk. He started talking about carrying on the traditions of the game, and playing the right way, and doing the right thing, and he goes, ‘Davis knows what I’m talking about.’

“And I just was like, ‘I just got called out by Arnold.’

One year at Bay Hill, I was close to the lead and I’m on TV and on 17 I hit it in the bunker in front of the green. And I blasted it out long – I was buried. I hit it 20 feet past the hole and I was mad. I walk up onto the green, and there was this sprinkler, and a piece of the head was cracked off of it. And I had my wedge turned down, and I was going to tap it, and I didn’t hit it hard, but it went in the hole and it knocked the top off the sprinkler head, and it made a fountain that high (Love raises his hand near waist height).

“And now water is filling the bunker up. And then I had to go putt directly at it. I actually made the putt, and I ran to the next tee, I was so embarrassed. It was a big deal. I went to the press room, and everybody is asking about it. Arnold had said something nice about it, or joked about it, before I’d gotten there. But it was very, very embarrassing.

“The next day I got to my locker and there’s an envelope with an Arnold Palmer logo on it, to Davis Love III.

“It’s a bill, and it says, ‘Dear Davis, The maintenance department is sending you a bill for yesterday’s accident at 17. It said ‘Parts, $17.93 for a nipple valve,’ and all that stuff. Then it said, ‘Head Green Superintendent/Assistant Green Superintendent labor: $100,000.’ You know, one hour at $100,000.

“Total: $100,017.93. Arnold Palmer.

“It made me feel so much better that he had made a joke about it. And he kind of backed me up in the media room, he said, ‘Oh, no, he didn’t mean to do it, it was an accident.’ Rather than your father/grandfather figure guy coming up and going (in a scolding manner), ‘I can’t believe you did that on national TV!’ … he made me feel better about it. And he said, ‘I was still hoping you would win the tournament.’

That’s the kind of guy he is.”

________________________________

2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational Tee Times Fantasy Rankings

Rocco Mediate met Arnold Palmer as a young man in Pennsylvania. (Mark Zerof/USA TODAY)

As a young golfer raised in Greensburg, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh, Rocco Mediate never had to look far for a golf hero. Arnold Palmer was his guy. Mediate’s buddies always told him that they would one day arrange a game with Palmer at Latrobe, which was Palmer’s club. When it happened, it would be a total surprise.

“I think I was 19,” Mediate says. “I went out to play at Greensburg (Country Club) on a Wednesday morning – I remember the day. We’d always tee off before the ladies teed off on Wednesday. I got a call from a couple of dear friends of mine, they said, ‘We got a game for you today at Latrobe. Do you want to come over about 10 o’clock?’ They said it’s a lot of money, and they’re backing me. I get there, walk past the pro shop, and there’s Mr. Palmer on the first tee with his shag bag, hitting balls. There was no range there.

“I promise you, for five minutes, I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do this.’

“My buddy sees me, and he says ‘Roc, come over here.’ And the second I shook Mr. Palmer’s hand, it was like I’d known him for 30 years. The second I shook his hand. … He always made you feel like you know him. People have watched him for 1,000 years and they feel they do know him. But sometimes you go up to people and they’re like, ‘You’re not going to know me; you won’t need to know me.’ He was the opposite.

“He taught me to look people in the eye, and you talk to them if you can. ‘Where are you from?’ You talk to them. My first few years on Tour, I was shy. But I learned from him. He kept pounding it into me: He’d say, ‘Look, you’ve got to give it back to them.’ Just being his friend, being able to say, ‘Yeah, that’s my friend over there,’ was huge. I played hundreds of rounds with him. Hundreds. First day we played I shot 69 and he shot 70. I have the $20 bill somewhere. He was healthy, and playing good then.”

Years later, when Mediate was struggling to keep a card and in need of playing opportunities, Palmer gave him a sponsor invitation into Bay Hill. Mediate played well and posted a good score (67) early on Sunday. Vijay Singh had lots of golf to play, but he had a comfortable lead and there seemed to be little doubt he would win.

Here’s Mediate’s story from that Sunday in 2007:

“Vijay had a four-shot lead with three to go, so I’m going to finish second. It saved my whole year. I was done. Arnold saw me play good in L.A., and he told me, ‘You’re in.’ He’d watch me play every once in a while at Bay Hill, watch a hole or two, leave.

Who does that?

“So I get in the cottage with him (Palmer) off the 18th fairway, and I’m celebrating finishing second. We’re having a few scotches. Now, Vijay bogeys 16. Arnold is like, ‘What do you think?’ I say, ‘I’m good. But if I get in, can you take me out to the playoff hole?’ I hadn’t eaten all day. We were laughing, having a great time.

“Vijay bogeys 17. Now he’s going to 18, two-shot lead, and he can make 6 in a heartbeat. Anyway, he knocks it on, way far away, wins by two. But I kept saying to Arnold, ‘You just take me out to the 18th tee,’ (for a playoff) and he said (Mediate, imitating Palmer, going into a low voice), ‘I’ll take care of it.’

“We just had a lot of fun over the years. He was really good to me. There will never be anybody like him.”

________________________________

Arnold Palmer Invitational Bay Hill PGA Tour Tee Time Fantasy Rankings

David Duval was high school the first time he met Arnold Palmer. (Getty Images)

David Duval, the 2001 British Open champion, was walking off the 16th green on the Old Course at St. Andrews two summers ago, and there was Palmer, sitting nearby, a grin on his face, waiting to say hello to him. It would be the last trip Palmer made to the Home of Golf.

“Ever since I met him, he knew my name, and to have Arnold Palmer know your name, especially as a young person, strokes your ego pretty good. It’s a nice, nice thing,” Duval said.

Duval was a high school student in Jacksonville, Fla., the first time he met Arnold Palmer.

“When they opened The Plantation (a Palmer design) in Ponte Vedra, my father (Bob Duval) was the pro, and Arnold came up to open the golf course. I was kind of the guy driving him around. Are you kidding me? I was 16, riding in golf cart all day with Arnold Palmer?

“I just find it fascinating, his love and appreciation, even for the other players. Not a lot of accomplishments compare to Arnold’s, but he understands that winning golf tournaments, and winning Ryder Cups, and winning majors, are huge, huge things.

“He’s just a kind, kind person. When I saw him out on the golf course coming off the 16th hole (at St. Andrews), I thought, ‘It’s just cool that Arnold Palmer knows who David is.’ That’s pretty cool. Makes you feel good.”

________________________________

Arnold Palmer Invitational 2017

Johnny Bench was grouped with Arnold Palmer in the 1971 Bob Hope Classic. (Getty Images)

Johnny Bench, a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and widely regarded as the greatest catcher who ever lived, joined entertainer Bob Hope on Hope’s overseas Christmas tour in 1970, and Hope invited Bench to play in his Bob Hope Classic a few months later. Bench, now 69, turned out to be a good golfer who would play on the Senior PGA Tour, but in 1971 he was a baseball player who’d never played in a pro-am. He got through his first three days at the Hope just fine. On the fourth day, he drew Arnold Palmer in his group.

“Arnold gets up, he’s on the back tee, smashes one, walks down, hitching his pants,” Bench said, smiling at the recollection. “Now, I’ve learned to always tee your ball up before they announce you, because nobody is focusing on you. But I couldn’t get that ball on the tee to save my life. He (Palmer) started laughing. He said, ‘You all right?’ I said, ‘Hell, no, I’m not all right.’

“I duck hook one into the 18th fairway (off the first hole, which is a par 5). I get down there, I’m trying to get the crowd to move, they’re not moving. And Arnold is just walking down the fairway! So I hit a 4-wood over their heads, knocked an 8-iron on the green, made the putt.

Arnold says, ‘What was that?’ ‘Four,’ Bench answered.

“ ‘FOUR?’ ” replied Palmer with his signature wince.

“So for 17 more holes, all we did was say hello to everybody. It was the greatest time of my life. I probably played with him 10 more times there, and we were paired together lots of times on the Senior Tour.”

Palmer and Bench because close friends. When Bench would pop his head into Palmer’s office at Bay Hill during tournament week, always a busy time, Palmer would stop everything and greet his friend with an enthusiastic, “My Man!”

There are only two things you need to know to get a proper sense of the admiration Bench held for Palmer in return. One is a picture that hangs in Bench’s home. It’s Palmer and Bench, sitting on a couch in Minneapolis during a party for the annual 3M PGA Tour Champions event at host Hollis Cavner’s home. Palmer and Bench are holding hands.

“Our fingers are laced together,” Bench said. “His big ol’ hand, my big ol’ hand …”

Bench also has a 10-year-old son. His name is Justin Palmer Bench. When Justin was a baby, Arnold would cradle him in his arms and proudly show him around, asking people, “Have you met Palmer? Have you met Palmer?”

Bench and Cavner drove to Latrobe last summer to spend time with their friend, whose health was failing. They had lunch in the grill room downstairs at Latrobe Country Club, where Arnold’s dad, Deacon, once was superintendent and pro, and where Arnold grew up.

“He was just doing his thing,” Bench said of Palmer. “There’s just nobody like him. He’s the epitome of what everybody should strive to be. Nobody can reach that level, basically. … Arnold was untouchable. One of the great untouchables. He was the best.”

________________________________

2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational Tee Times Fantasy Golf

Arnold Palmer and grandson, Sam Saunders, drew closer as Saunders grew. (Golfweek File Photo.)

Sam Saunders has a lot of great memories of Palmer. He should. He is Palmer’s grandson, the son of Amy Saunders, who is Palmer’s daughter. Saunders remembers a lot of great off-the-course times with his “Dumpy,” but came to appreciate more recent times, when he and his grandfather would be one on one, talking man to man.

“We had such a unique relationship, and I honestly feel there aren’t many people in the world who know him like I knew him,” Saunders said. “And that only happened probably in the last five years.

“Childhood memories, sitting in the garage and watching him work on clubs, those were some of the special moments for me. But just the time we’ve worked together, hitting balls together at the back of the range at Latrobe, just the two of us, nobody there … and having him say some things to me that I never thought he’d say to me. And be proud of me, and let me know that he’s happy with what I’m doing. That’s not his style. He never was like that when I was younger; he never was quick to praise me at all.

“So when we spent some time alone together, and he told me he was proud of me and he liked what I was doing, those are special moments that I’ll never forget. And it meant so much coming from him. I know it’s a lot for him to say.”

Palmer’s father, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, was tough on him. It was his mother, Doris, who is credited with helping Arnold shape his people skills. She was the one who praised him unconditionally, regardless of how he fared on a course. Saunders realizes that for years, his grandfather gave him “tough love.” But as Saunders matured, their relationship changed.

“We kind of got past that point, because I earned his respect and showed him that I was a man,” he said, “and he liked that. He thickened my skin a little bit, which is good.”

Does Saunders have a favorite moment or two with his grandfather?

“We were having a drink together,” said Saunders, now 29. “I want to say we were up in Latrobe, in his house, and it was just the two of us. And he said to me, ‘If I were you, I’d be doing exactly what you’re doing.’ And I don’t even need to go into details about what that meant, but it was neat. For him to say that … I’d gone off to Colorado (he now is back living in Florida), got married, had kids, and he respected that, and he knew why I did it (moved away). He knew I couldn’t stay in Orlando, and I needed to make my own life.”

Saunders still gets asked about his grandfather practically every day of his life. People may think it’s an inconvenience, but Saunders welcomes every conversation.

“Whether he’s my granddad or not, I recognize now that I wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for him,” he said. “I know Tiger made it a lot different for the money, and I always will be grateful for his contributions to the game, but we truly wouldn’t be here doing this – you wouldn’t be here doing this – if it weren’t for him. So, granddad or not, I owe him that respect. Everyone out here does.”

________________________________

Sam Saunders greets his grandfather, Arnold Palmer, as he made the turn during Round 1 of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge in 2016.  (Golfweek/Tracy Wilcox)

One last story from Faxon. This one about Arnold Palmer came later in his career, when Palmer did a favor for Faxon and Billy Andrade (who attended Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer Scholarship) and visited Rhode Island to play in a two-day summer charity event, the CVS Classic, at Rhode Island Country Club.

Palmer had finished his second round, then stood in the heat and signed every autograph he could before making his way up into the air-conditioned clubhouse. Faxon had one of his good friends, an old high school buddy named Paul Schwab, in charge of transporting Palmer around that week, and their next stop was the airport so that Palmer could get home.

Faxon picks up the story:

“So we have a big crowd for the (trophy) presentation, the last groups are coming up on 18, and Arnold is in the clubhouse. And Arnold says to Paul, ‘Well, are you ready to go (to the airport)?’

“And Paul looks out at this big crowd and he pauses, and then he says, ‘Well, Mr. Palmer, they’d probably like to see you one more time.’

“Arnold really didn’t want to go back out there, but he says, “I am Arnold Palmer.” And he stood up and walked back out there, just to say hello, to thank everyone, and to sign more autographs.

“That’s cool.”

Latest

More Golfweek
Home