Arnie Palmer was at home in Latrobe that September afternoon having a quiet birthday when the doorbell rang. There, wearing a warm grin, stood a kindly old gentleman, gray where he wasn’t bald, who was just five years out of the White House and who, some two decades earlier, had saved the world.
“Any chance an old man can spend the night here?” asked Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike’s visit was Winnie Palmer’s surprise gift to her husband on his 37th birthday. Winnie (who passed away in 1999) had Palmer’s pilot sneak off in Palmer’s plane and smuggle Ike in from his farm near Gettysburg. It was a perfect gift. They were golfing pals at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters Tournament, and deeply admired each other; a second father-second son thing.
Ike had become Augusta National’s marquee member, having been courted by Clifford Roberts, co-founder, chairman and the power of Augusta and the Masters.
Palmer was the guy, a later chairman said, who made the Masters.
A kind of Jupiter Effect clicked like cosmic tumblers when Palmer arrived in golf. The Jupiter Effect would supposedly cause great disturbances because of the multiplied gravity of all the planets lining up on one side of the sun. It was a dud. But when Palmer, with his electrifying game and his charisma, hit the rise of television, the explosion filled country clubs and sent public courses over their banks. Even dockworkers took up the game. And fans swarmed him on the course.
A writer once suggested to Palmer that he was in the pantheon of sports, right up there with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jack Dempsey and all the rest. Palmer brushed the notion away.
The writer persisted. “Is there a difference?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Palmer said. “I’m still alive.”
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Arnold Daniel Palmer is a small-town guy out of Latrobe, Pa. As a kid, he carried water for his mom to wash dishes and clothes. He wasn’t allowed to be with his school pals on the golf course or in the swimming pool at Latrobe Country Club because his dad, Milfred “Deacon” Palmer, was the greenskeeper, just one of the hired hands. Palmer now owns the club, along with Bay Hill in Orlando.
Dad also kept pigs and chickens and worked a night job in the melt shop at Latrobe Steel; and had scars from splashes of molten metal. Arnold learned golf from his dad, mooched nickels hitting drives over the little stream for the ladies, and was a bricklayer’s helper at Latrobe Steel, relining the big ovens with refractory bricks. Palmer, with those heavyweight’s hands, once thought he’d like to be a pianist. For a giant, he stood only 5-foot-10 and weighed 185 at his best.
He could be Everyman, with a big jaw, blacksmith arms and slab shoulders, but with the guts of a cliff diver in his game. The classic way to play a golf course is to go from Point A to Point B, and so forth. Arnie’s idea of playing a course was to trap it against the ropes and not let it up. If you put his game on the racetrack, he’d take the turns on two wheels and not mind taking sparks off the wall.
* * *
Come that Thursday morning of the first full week of April, 2015, Palmer and his old friendly enemies, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player—the Big Three—will step out on the first tee as honorary starters to hit the first drives and launch the 79th Masters. Palmer was the first to win four Masters. Nicklaus won a record six, and Player won three.
“It’ll be like my first Masters,” Palmer said. “I still get nervous.”
The Masters is the Easter of golf—for a nation, a world coming out of winter, even where there’s no winter. The Masters is the first of four tournaments acknowledged as the major events, not by decree but by common consent. The other three are national championships—the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship. They are played at different courses every year. The golfers gain entry through a variety of qualifiers. The Masters, by definition, is simply a tournament put on by a club. But it pretty much defies definition. The Masters is the best-run and most coveted tournament in the world. Entry is by invitation. Golfers watch for that envelope like they watch for checks. Harder, even.
So the field is strictly marquee, the competition exciting, the prize money great and the peach cobbler in the clubhouse outstanding. And there’s the setting: If the angels would want a golf course, they could just copy Augusta. Augusta is muted emerald carpeting draped gently over the rolling hills and through the towering pines and the pastel breaths of azaleas.
Even so, for the early years, from 1934 to about the end of World War II, something was missing. The Masters people didn’t know what was missing. Until Arnie Palmer showed up.
“It’ll be like my first Masters,” Palmer said. “I still get nervous.”
Said the late Hord Hardin, St. Louis banker and Augusta chairman: “Arnold’s the most special guy in golf. He had a charisma about him. He brought the bleacher crowd to golf. Golf was a country club game, but with Arnie… things changed completely.”
Said the late Jack Stephens, Arkansas billionaire and another Augusta chairman: “From the day he first set foot on the grounds, the tournament has never been the same.”
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Augusta National, outside the city of Augusta in northeast Georgia, is a Shangri-La of CEOs, movers and shakers like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and sports celebrities such as ex-Steeler Lynn Swann and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Membership is by invitation only. Big money, by itself, does not open that gate, and one does not ask to join. The exclusivity merely begins at the towering hedges around the perimeter. But for one week a year, there is no more hospitable, more welcoming place on the globe.
Augusta National was founded at precisely the wrong time—the early 1930s in the teeth of the Great Depression. It was like a baby being born on a boat in the Niagara River, just above the falls. Established country clubs were failing all over the country. But Clifford Roberts, who rose from double-suicide orphan to wealthy Wall Streeter, was driven by circumstances to become a hard-edged pragmatist. He would have his club or else. And he had for a partner the heroic Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur ever, a romantic schooled in engineering, literature and law. Jones had rated two New York ticker tape parades, same as Ike, Amelia Earhart and Charles de Gaulle, among a few.
For all of that, Augusta was struggling to make it. It was trying to be somebody. It needed members, and for that, it needed a name. The standard publicity move was to host a tournament. They first considered the U.S. Open but rejected the idea. You couldn’t play golf in Augusta’s summer heat. So they would hold their own tournament. They would invite the best pros of the day to a big golf party worth some good money. Jones would be the attraction for the great golfers. He always wanted just to play with his pals—his pals being the best golfers in the country. But Jones had given up tournament golf and wouldn’t play. Roberts pointed out that if he wouldn’t, why would the others? So Augusta’s first problem, apart from not being able to pay the mortgage, was solved. Jones played.
The Masters—the original name was the Augusta National Invitational—was first played in 1934, just in time to create a little joy. Roberts had filled Jones in on the club’s financial status: “…one jump ahead of the sheriff.” It was this bad: They never did pay the man who designed the course, Alister MacKenzie. He died broke only a couple months before that first Masters was played.
The Masters eventually took root in the public mind, but times were still bad. The course was shut down during World War II, but little changed with the peace, even with stars such as Ben Hogan and Sam Snead back from military service. Palmer was too young for WWII but did a three-year hitch in the Coast Guard during the Korean War.
The persona of Arnold Palmer began to emerge when he won the U.S. Amateur in 1954, for his bold play, his mannerisms and that connection with people. Where other pros went about the game with monastic intensity, Palmer was checking the gallery to see who might want to go out for a beer.
There are plaques to Palmer at a number of places. The biggest and most elaborate is the one attached to the water fountain at the tee at Augusta’s elegant par-3 16th, dedicated in 1995. His game was long gone by then, but the rest of him was still there. At the 16th tee, he turned to the jammed gallery.
“Is the water in that fountain any good?” he asked.
Came a woman’s voice: “You made it holy, didn’t you, Arnie?”
Palmer grinned and turned and birdied the hole. “If they put a plaque up at every hole,” he said, “I could really play.”
* * *
Palmer was pretty fair in his first three Masters: a tie for 10th in the first, in 1955, then a solo 21st, then a tie for seventh. By his fourth, in 1958, he had absorbed enough course knowledge and was ready to go. Then there was almost no stopping him. He won four over seven years, in 1958, ’60, ’62 and ’64, broken up by two close calls, a third in ’59 and a tie for second in ’61.
He was also crushing the golf world elsewhere, the kind of thing that jolted the country. In the 1960 U.S. Open, he trailed by seven shots going into the final round, drove the first green, some 340 yards, and shot 65 to win. Then he resurrected the British Open, the world’s first championship. It had slipped into being a polite European event. In 1960, with both the Masters and U.S. Open in hand, he created the dream of the modern Grand Slam—winning all four majors in the same year. He finished second by a stroke, but any tournament Arnie wanted to play in, everybody wanted to play in. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, which stages the British Open, thanked Palmer for reviving it.
As former chairman Jack Stephens said, the Masters was never the same after Palmer arrived. The box office felt it first. “Prior to Arnold,” Stephens said, “the Masters didn’t sell as many tickets as it would have liked. After… the tournament had to limit the number of tickets sold. Television even began to pay us for the rights.”
The Masters boomed. Attendance is never announced, but estimates put it at 30,000 to 50,000 a day—not much for football but immense on a golf course. The price may be the best of all major sports events: only $325 for the four playing days, Thursday through Sunday. The problem is, tickets are available only to the exclusive patrons list, said to have been closed decades ago. Even so, a person with the right contacts might scratch one up for $8,000 or thereabouts.
Palmer’s 85 now. He was 75 when he last played on the PGA Tour, 77 on the Champions (senior) Tour. Why, observers wondered, did he play so long?
“It’s the love of the game,” Palmer said. “It’s that simple.”
The plaque to Palmer at Augusta’s 16th is a metal slab measuring about two feet wide and 28 inches high, and bears an inscription 16 lines and 144 words long.
It reads: “Thanks, Arnie.”