Arnold Palmer on the swinging sixties

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The ‘Swinging ‘60s’ was a great decade for golf as a sport and for you personally. What are your favourite memories from it?

Well, yes, I have a lot of fantastic memories from that decade. I remember it was then that I made my first ever trip to Europe to play in the World Cup at Portmarnock, in Ireland, with Sam Snead. We won that tournament, which was terrific.

Then, from there I made my first trip to St Andrews to play in my first Open in 1960 and, of course, that was quite a great thrill for me, even though I lost to Kel Nagle by a shot. It was great for him but not so good for me! But visiting St Andrews was so important to me and I’ll never forget my first time going there.

You won six of your seven majors and 43 titles in total during the ‘60s. What was the secret to your success?

It’s hard to say. I’d been playing pretty good through the late 1950s and that carried on into the ‘60s. I had a pretty good run. I just wanted to win and play well and I suppose, if anything, my golf got better as the decade went on.
"There were a lot of events late in my career that I felt I could have and maybe should have won." - Arnold Palmer

I honestly feel that, as much success as I had in the early ‘60s, I played my best golf in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s towards the end of my career. My desire, though, was probably not as strong as it had been earlier in my career and I can’t really explain that except to say there were a lot of events late in my career that I felt I could have and maybe should have won, particularly major championships. You know, I tied a few, lost some play-offs and to try and explain why is very difficult.

You won 29 times from 1960-1963. That must have been a hot run of form?

It was a pretty good streak, yes sir! That was a very successful time for me and particularly winning the Open at Birkdale in 1961 and again the following year at Troon really stands out as being ‘extra special’ from that time, if you like. The Open was a tournament that I revered and to win it those two times

was wonderful.

The ‘60s also saw golf’s popularity really take off globally, with yourself, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player at the forefront. What did you guys do differently compared to those who had played the game before you?

The Masters - Round One

Well, the thing about Nicklaus and Player is that they were very competitive and, of course, so was I. We were friends, don’t get me wrong, but we all enjoyed winning and playing against each other, and we all had some pretty good streaks during those days.

The Hogans and the Sneads and the Nelsons who all went before us were great players too, though, so I don’t know if we were doing anything differently as such. It’s hard to say.

There has always been speculation hat you and Jack didn’t quite see eye-to-eye when he first came on the tour. You are obviously good friends now and have been for a number of years, but what was your relationship like back then?

Well, let me tell you, before Jack even turned professional he came to me and asked my advice and I helped him as much as I could in those early days. So, we were friends before he even turned pro and that didn’t change. That said, we were also very competitive and that’s something that hasn’t changed over time. We’re still competitive, we still compete. Does that affect our friendship? Not at all.
"I always enjoyed playing at Augusta. It was one of the great places to be in the world of golf." - Arnold Palmer

Are you still in touch with one another quite regularly? 

Sure, we talk often and I see him a lot  of the time. We do exhibitions together and work together on a lot of things. Our friendship is enduring.

In 1964, you became the first golfer to win four times at Augusta. What are your favourite memories from that tournament?

I always enjoyed playing at Augusta. It was one of the great places to be in the world of golf. It still is and it’s getting even greater. It is something that will last forever in my memories and I suppose the thing that stands out in my mind is that, in ’58, ’60 and ’62, I won narrowly. You know, by a shot or in a play-off.

And one of the things that was very outstanding in my mind was that I wanted to one day walk up the 18th hole without having sweat and blood...and, of course, in ’64, I was playing with my good friend Dave Marr and it was looking like he’d be second. We got to the 18th hole and I knew that I was in pretty good shape to win and that I’d be able to walk up the fairway with a smile on my face. I turned to Dave and I said: “If I can help you, I will.” He looked at me and, in his sarcastic manner, said: “Well, you could make 12.”

The majority of us can only dream about walking up the 18th at Augusta knowing you’re going to be Masters champion. Can you describe what that feeling is like?

The Masters - Preview Day 3

It’s just terrific. The feeling of having accomplished something like that is almost indescribable. Knowing I was going to be part of that tournament forever more as a former champion was magnificent and it still is. I’m very proud to continue to be associated with the Masters. I look forward to it every year, particularly the first tee shot. That’s always great fun.

In 1967, you became the first golfer to reach $1m in career earnings on the PGA Tour. Last year alone, the top 90 all made over a million. Ever wish you were playing in this era and making the money these guys make?

Well, of course, the money today is so different to my day. I mean, it took me long enough just to win $100,000 in one year but now these guys are winning $1million every event. It’s unbelievable.

My grandson is playing the tour off and on now. I think his best finishes are something like 15th and 17th and, already, he’s won nearly as much money as I won winning 62 events!

Do you think there is too much money in the game now?

No, but I do think it’s going to level off a little bit. With the economies the way they are and sponsorships a little more difficult to come by, I don’t see the purses going up anytime soon. I think they are going to flatten out for at least the next while.

You played in four Ryder Cup teams during the 1960s, six in total. What are your best memories from those matches?

I love the Ryder Cup and I was always very pleased to be playing in it. As a matter of fact, I missed two Ryder Cups because of my eligibility. When I first started out, you had to be a pro for five years before you could be considered for selection so I missed out on two teams.
"I enjoyed playing for my country. That was a great thrill for me." - Arnold Palmer

But the ones that I played in, I enjoyed very much. It was a fantastic tournament. I enjoyed the competition and I enjoyed playing for my country. That was a great thrill for me.

In 1963, you were a playing captain in the Ryder Cup and are the last person to do so. Are you surprised that no other captain has since chosen to lead from the front like you did?

Well, in 1963, I was right in the middle of my playing career so it was maybe easier for me to be captain and play. Am I surprised that no-one else has done so? Not particularly, but I wouldn’t rule it out happening again.

When people talk about golf in the ‘60s, it sounds like it was all about playing hard both on and off the course. Is that what it was really like?

Honestly? I was always working, even when I wasn’t on the golf course. I had a lot of other things going on with my businesses and practising, doing exhibitions and so on. My agent, Mark McCormack, kept me pretty busy!

You were Mark McCormack’s first client. Can you tell us a little about your relationship with him?

Palmer2

Well, Mark and I had been friends for a while and knew each other pretty well. He played golf at William And Mary College and I played at Wake Forest, so we got to know each other pretty well from that. He then went to law school and became an attorney associated with a law firm in Cleveland and I was playing the tour.

One day, he came to me and asked me if I would be his client and we went through the whole thing and came to an agreement. At that time, I was to be his only client but then Gary came along and wanted to know if I would allow Mark to handle his business and I couldn’t very well say no.

Then Jack came on the scene and the same thing happened. Mark then formed IMG and you know what has happened since then. It has become one of the largest representative agencies in the business. It was very sad when he passed away because things were really going very well for him and he was enjoying doing what he was doing. He was a great man.

You are also widely credited with popularising the Open Championship amongst American golfers during the ‘60s, getting them to take an interest in it where they hadn’t before. What made the Open so important to you?

It was always something that was a ‘must’ on my schedule. Back at the start, when my father and I were discussing my career, he told me that it was important to be an international player, that you had to be playing and competing all around the globe. I was always very motivated to play in the Open and I feel very fortunate to have won it a couple of times.
"I have so many good friends in Scotland and the country has always been a big part of my life."- Arnold Palmer

The fact that it has become very important to American golfers is something that I think is only appropriate for the tournament. Being part of the R&A and playing those great Open courses is something that I will always treasure and being part of golf in Scotland is something that is extremely important to me. I have so many good friends in Scotland and the country has always been a big part of my life.

Which of today’s crop of players reminds you most of yourself?

Oh, that’s a real tough one! I watch these young boys today and they’re just great. McIlroy is great, of course, but this young German boy is fabulous. There are so many tremendous players these days, it’s hard to choose just one.

A lot of people who didn’t live through your era refer to Tiger as the “greatest player that ever lived”.  Where do you stand on that?

Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard - Final Round

Well, I don’t know how anyone could pick any one player. You can’t very well say that anyone is better than Nicklaus was. Certainly, Tiger is very good but there have been a lot of great players throughout the history of the game.

Do you think Tiger can get back to his best?

Yes, I think so. I think he can come back, come around and I feel that he will be very good again. I don’t think there’s much question about that.

Can he beat Jack’s record?

I’d still give him a chance to do that, yes.

You were one of the first big stars of televised golf in the early ‘60s. Do you enjoy watching the game on TV today?

Oh yes, very much so. I think it’s great what modern TV has done for the game and I think it will get better. And, since I had something to do with the Golf Channel, I think the fact that it is still going strong is very good. 

Is there one shot that you look back on most fondly from your career?

Not so much a shot but one of my proudest moments was winning the US Amateur. I beat Robert Sweeney in 1954 at the Country Club of Detroit and it set me on the road to a successful career.

I always enjoying talking about that event with people and thinking back to the things that happened there. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the finest victories I ever managed in my career.
"Be committed to the game, practice hard, work hard and enjoy what you do just like I always did." - Arnold Palmer

What one piece of advice would you give someone starting out in the game?

I think a young man who has the opportunity to play needs to keep himself in good physical condition, first and foremost. It will help your mind stay in good shape and that will eventually end up playing a big role in how successful you are. You also need to be committed to the game, practice hard, work hard and enjoy what you do just like I always did.

Finally, then, you still have a huge army of fans over here in Scotland. Do you have a message for them?

Sure. My best wishes to you all. I hope you enjoy good health and continue to enjoy the great game of golf.

Arnold Palmer in bunkered


This interview with Arnold Palmer first appeared in issue 106 of bunkered, published in April 2011.

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