There is, I’m convinced, a bottomless well of desire among golfers to hear the stories of the game’s greatest players. That’s probably true of other sports as well; diehard fans will drive long distances for the chance to hear Hank Aaron reminisce about setting the home-run record or Joe Montana reflect on “The Catch.”
But golfers seem to take it to a different level. We might admire the brilliance of Mike Trout, but we do so from a distance, on TV or in the bleachers, decades after we’ve hung up our spikes.
Golfers of all levels, however, share the game with the world’s best golfers in a way that fans of other sports are not able to do. We play the same courses as our heroes, face the same risk/reward scenarios, and sometimes stand just a few feet away at tournaments as we watch them hit shots we could never contemplate.
And their careers mark the passage of time because they are measured in decades, not years. We remember where we were when Jack and Tom dueled at Turnberry, when Jack won his sixth Masters, when Tiger won his first Masters, and when he learned that Arnie had passed away.
Two recent books tap into this desire. In “Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King,” author Chris Rodell leans heavily on Palmer’s friends and neighbors in Latrobe, Pa., for their remembrances. This subject is right in Rodell’s sweet spot: He and his family have lived in Latrobe since 1992, and during his freelance-writing career, he was a regular contributor to “Kingdom,” a magazine dedicated to all things Arnie. So he asked locals to share their best Palmer stories.
What emerges is a clearer, more detailed portrait of Palmer – not as The King, but simply as a citizen deeply invested in making his community a better place to live.
Like everyone else, I knew that Palmer loved to pilot his own planes; what I didn’t know was that for 34 years he served on the Westmoreland County Airport Authority, a political appointment. The airport manager said bidders for airport contracts often were star-struck upon learning that Palmer, along with eight fellow citizens, would be deciding their fate.
A resident recalls his surprise in 1980 when he saw Palmer, then 50, at the starting line for a July 4th 5-kilometer run. “It was like he was just another guy out participating in the holiday community run,” the man said. Another recalled how Palmer left a family funeral early to honor a commitment to present an award to the local high school golf coach.
One of the best stories is of Jimmy Bryan, who idolized Palmer from childhood. Years later when Bryan set up a dental practice in Latrobe, Arnold and Winnie Palmer became his patients, and he, in turn, became Palmer’s regular golf partner. Any fees he collected from the Palmers seemingly were returned in the form of lost bets on the golf course.
Time and again, Rodell fleshes out anecdotes that underscore the Palmer we all knew – a man comfortable in his own skin, one who never took himself too seriously. Rodell’s book is a celebration of the simple, everyday moments that made Palmer golf’s most popular figure.
Mark Squire isn’t quite as successful in his self-published book, “Rain Delay: Untold Stories from the Legends of Golf.”
The term “legends” is used loosely. It definitely applies to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer; you can make your own call on Fred Funk and Gary McCord. Also, many of the stories, presented in as-told-to fashion, aren’t as novel as the title suggests.
If you’re patient, however, you’ll find a few decent tales. John Mahaffey, for example, shares some of the backstory of his ties to Ben Hogan. Nicklaus recalled that on a trip to South Africa, Ian Player dropped a poisonous snake on his brother, Gary, as he napped on a river bank.
It’s not a deep well of stories, but fans might something here to slake their thirst. Gwk
Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King
By Chris Rodell
Triumph Books; 240 pages
Rain Delay: Untold Stories from the Legends of Golf
By Mark E. Squire
Rain Delay Productions LLC; 158 pages