Arnold Palmer: A Reminder of Golf’s Pre-Sanitization Past

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Arnold Palmer watches a drive from the tee box during the 1960 British Open at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club.  Mary Delaney Cooke / Getty Images


Even among fellow sports fanatics, I tend to take a lot of guff for my stance as an all-in, go-hard pro golf enthusiast. Observing me carefully as I monitor the endless final hours of, say, the Valero Texas Open, certain friends will take a cautious, probing inventory of my personal sanity. What could possess an otherwise apparently rational individual to sit through the maddeningly slow process of several mainly loathsome tour professionals in a protracted battle to see who putts least worst? And I will concede that there are indeed times — when no one interesting is in contention, when the weather delays are endless, or when the rules officials seem to be comprised of dedicated acidheads making up insane regulations on the fly — that even I think to myself: “This sport fucking sucks.”

But it doesn’t. Golf is great. When it’s at its best, it is the pinnacle of spectator sport, and the reason for this is as simple as it is demented. In its most heated moments, golf is pure, unadulterated, mainline anxiety porn. It speaks to something very real, and very twisted, that the most infamous and replayed incidents in golf’s history tend to revolve around elite players losing their minds from pressure at fixed moments, pivotal to their career and legacy. Think Greg Norman at the Masters in ’96, Phil Mickelson butchering 18 at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006, Adam Scott surrendering a three-shot lead with three to play at St. Ann’s in 2012, and apparent android Jordan Spieth being rendered all too human on Amen Corner this past year. The Golf Meltdown is the single most compelling and excruciating three-plus hours sports has to offer.

Arnold Palmer didn’t invent the Golf Meltdown, but like so many other things, he transformed it into legend. At the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympia, backed by his ubiquitous legion of fans, known as Arnie’s Army, Palmer managed to squander a six-shot lead with six holes to play, essentially by playing like a lunatic. Soon after, he was overtaken and thoroughly surpassed by his arch rival Jack Nicklaus, who was much better at controlling his emotions and much less cool to watch. Jack was REM to Arnie’s Replacements, the Tab Hunter to his Montgomery Clift.

Jack’s the best that will ever be, but he’s kind of a dick. He recently took time to castigate Colin Kaepernick on the basis of the notion that “he hasn’t been here that long” and “we have a great country” and some other things that sounded like landed gentry mouthing words. Meanwhile, Arnie’s last great public gesture was to give a warts and all appraisal of his life to Sports Illustrated, over the course of a wide ranging interview with the great golf writer Michael Bamberger, which included bon mots like the following:

I asked Arnold about earlier girlfriends, if he had ever been close to getting married before meeting Winnie.

“Well I f—– a few,” Arnold said. “But I never wanted to marry them.”

Arnold was going off-script. He knew he was not portraying himself as a saint. But he was doing something better and more useful. He was telling a story that was actually believable. I think he wanted us to know, late in his day, the real story of when Arnie met Winnie. For our benefit, for yours, and for his, too. You know what they say: The truth will set you free.

I know that part of what puts people off about golf is that it has justifiably become associated with outrageous privilege. It’s sad and true and undeniable that an enormous percentage of the sport, particularly on the American side, has become the province of the worst kind of shit-heel country club monsters.

Consider, however, that the sport has its real roots in endlessly progressive Scotland, where senselessly knocking a ball around an unmanageably hilly and unkempt acreage comprises the best possible diversion from weather-driven insanity. Think of young Arnold Palmer, the working class kid from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who learned his swing from his groundskeeper father and went on to win seven majors. Before Palmer’s mass-stardom and the reams of endorsement dollars it brought to the sport, golf had more in common with the vaguely noir-ish underworlds of professional billiards or poker. It attracted hustlers and unsavories. Palmer’s electric style and matinee idol looks formally ushered out those elements from the sport, but something about him always seemed to reside in golf’s pre-sanitization past, with the Scots wildmen and dollar-a-hole grifters of yore.

Golf does something else well, which is to treat its history and its legends with a hands-on reverence that makes them familiar to succeeding generations of fans. Palmer was functionally finished winning by the time I was born, but I always knew who he was and I always liked the guy. Although he hasn’t been a major athletic force in four decades, Palmer remained golf’s unchallenged avatar of far-reaching goodwill right until the end, and the notion of anyone succeeding him in that capacity seems nearly unthinkable. Nicklaus and Tom Watson are basically Trump surrogates. Gary Player is handsomely muscled but always angry about something. Nick Faldo? Johnny Miller? Ugh.

Nope, no replacing Arnie. Once again, in a year where we’ve already lost Bowie, Merle, Prince, and Ali, the raid on our store of cool continues callow and unceasing.