Open Mic

To Play the Game With an Unreachable Perfection: Arnold Palmer, My Dad, My Brother and Me

Chuck Ross Posted May 8, 2014 at 4:30 AM

Back in 1961, in his fiftieth year, my dad decided to take up golf. My brother and I were rather surprised. Our dad liked watching baseball and football, but we don’t recall him participating in any sport other than our overly earnest summer ping-pong matches. He would regale us with stories about his being an end on the 1929 Oxnard High School football team that won the California State Championship, but that seemed to be the extent of his interest in participatory sports.

A couple of his World War II buddies had tried to interest him in golf for a long time, to no avail. Finally, one day, I recall him saying to me, “Let’s go to the driving range. I’m going to try and hit a few.” He had borrowed some clubs from one of his friends, and I piled into our station wagon along with a driver, a spoon, and two irons, a three and a seven.  We drove the two or three miles to Rancho Park -- a close distance to our house in West Los Angeles -- and for the first time, we went to the public golf course side of the park, instead of the side that had the picnic tables, baseball diamonds and tennis courts.

I was impressed. My dad smashed some balls pretty far. Later I came to realize that physically he closely resembled the pro golfer Julius Boros. Both were about 6 feet tall, were built very solidly, and had a noticeable -- but not too large -- pot belly. Soon after that day at the driving range my dad started taking golf lessons, and before long he joined his buddies in what became a regular foursome on Saturdays. They only played public courses here in Los Angeles, and played Rancho as often as they could. My dad fell in love with the game and played it regularly for the next 20 years, until he became too sick to play in the two months or so before he died.

Whenever my dad was asked why he took up the game after seemingly having no interest in it whatsoever, he would say, enticingly, “Well, it’s all Arnold Palmer’s fault.”

He would go on to explain that his old Army Air Corps buddy, Lee, had been trying to get him to take up the game for years. Lee loved playing the Rancho Park 18-hole golf course, and would always tell my dad it was a great, fun course and not really that difficult, despite being the home of the annual Los Angeles Open on the Professional Golfers’ Association tour. What happened, my dad said, is that he was reading the front page of one of our local newspapers in January 1961, “and the damn headline for the whole paper was that Palmer had shot a 12 on a par 5 during the Open at Rancho. Lee had been there and had seen it happen. ‘Maury,’ he said, ‘Trust me, you’ll never shoot a 12 on that hole. Just try it once, and if you shoot a 12 or more, I’ll shut up about getting you to take up golf.’ So I figured what the hell.”

I hadn’t thought about this story in a very long time until Dan Higgins, who does publicity for the Golf Channel, sent me an email last month alerting me to the airing of an ambitious three-part, six-hour-plus documentary the channel had spent a year making, titled, simply, “Arnie.” Palmer, now 84, is the co-founder of the Golf Channel, which is now owned by NBC Sports so is part of the Comcast media conglomerate. The documentary was done with Palmer’s cooperation, and he appears throughout, in both clips and present-day interviews.

In the email Higgins sent me, there was this statement: " 'Mr. Palmer is an American icon, but what makes him so special is that he is absolutely genuine, especially through his ability to truly connect with everyone he meets,’ said Mike McCarley, president of Golf Channel. ‘To document the full impact of his life and legacy would be virtually impossible; however this project is an ambitious attempt to capture the influence he has in golf and sports as part of popular culture.' "

I missed the initial airing of the program, but a few weeks ago I finally caught up with it on the Golf Channel Live website. Unfortunately, the documentary is no longer available for screening on-air or online. I was told that it was a rights issue connected with some of the footage. At some point the Golf Channel will repeat the show, and you should try and catch it then if you haven't seen it.

The documentary is excellent. Palmer proves as good a storyteller as he is a golfer. Tom Selleck lends his smooth, authoritative--yet simultaneously soothing--voice to the program as its narrator. My only criticism is that several times Selleck’s narrative is overly fawning. But that’s a small quibble to make about a documentary that so entertainingly shows how Palmer is THE pivotal figure who really single-handedly brought golf into the TV age, with its corresponding rewards to the game’s players. Furthermore, he’s one of the best examples in the modern era of how an athlete has been able to brand himself in such a positive manner that his influence far exceeds golf.   

Palmer was also the primary person who popularized golf with the public. According to a clip (not from “Arnie”) I recently watched on YouTube that was narrated by the late, great sportscaster Jim McKay, the number of people who played golf in the U.S., between 1960 and 1970, increased from 5 million to 10 million. During that same 10-year time period, the number of golf courses increased from 6,300 to 10,000, which is, almost unbelievably, the opening of one golf course a day for ten years. (By the way, today, 44 years after 1970, there are only about 5,500 more golf courses in the U.S., according to the United States Golfers Assn.)

I went searching at the L.A. Public Library the other day to find that front page headline my dad always talked about. Sure enough, there it was on the front page of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner on Saturday, Jan. 7, 1961: "Palmer Fights to Stay in Golf Play" read the banner. There was a picture of Palmer with the caption “ ‘Duffer’ Palmer Can Still Smile After Disastrous Blow-up.” Underneath the picture was this diagram of how Palmer managed to have shot a 12 on a par-5:

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Even better was that day’s Los Angeles Mirror. On the cover of its sports section the headline invited, “Palmer Tells How He Made 12.” The article has Palmer’s byline followed by "(As told to Stan Wood)." The Mirror folded in 1962. Here’s what Palmer wrote:

You ask how a guy who has won the National Open, the Masters, and six other tournaments in one year can take a dufferish 12 on one hole?

Well, it’s easy. I just missed a 12-foot putt for my 11.

Seriously, I wanted to make a birdie real badly on the 509-yd. par-5 9th hole, which was my last hole since I started on the No. 10 tee. I was 1-under par going to there, and a bird would give me a 69. I had a good tee shot and figured I had a spoon (3-wood) shot to the green. I had a sort of uphill lie, which might cause me to hook the shot. Going into the shot I pushed it a little and it went right over the big fence into the driving range. I reloaded and did the same thing.

I was more numb than anything, although I was doing a slow burn, too. Maybe I overcompensated because I hooked the next one clear over the fence to the left. At this point I was thinking about hitting the green and nothing else.

I dropped another of those nice new Wilson Staff balls and watched it hook out of bounds. This one landed on the street over there (Patricia Ave.) and rolled on some guy’s front yard.

Finally, I hit it right and the ball stopped about 12 feet from the hole. That’s a great average isn’t it, one out of five? I blew the putt and made 12. Now, that’s a nice fat round number. That gave me “Red Grange.” (Player parlance for 77.)

I don’t ever recall going into double figures on any hole, unless it was when I was just starting to play golf when I was five-years-old.

I should of cut the ball (imparted a slice) off that lie. Sure it would have been a lot tougher shot, but if I cut it at least I would have known which way it was going to go.

Oh well, I suppose if I had just hit one ball out of bounds and came in with a 72, I’d have been madder than hell right now. Not that I’m exactly overjoyed, you understand.

After I hit the third one out, it started to get funny. I actually started to chuckle to myself. When you get to that stage, the only thing you can do is laugh about it.

It’s the same old story with me in the L.A. Open all over again. I guess everything happens to me here. And I sure picked the right time for this, with the new rule costing me two pops for OBs. Well, anyway, you can say I mixed up my shots pretty good, huh?

And, oh yes, from now on when I’m in Los Angeles, my address is 12th and Patricia.

There is now a plaque by the tee of the 9th hole commemorating Palmer’s historic 12.

Several weeks after his blow-up at Rancho, Palmer was back on track and won the British Open. At the end of the 1961 golf season Palmer won the PGA’s prestigious Vardon Trophy,  awarded to the touring  pro with the lowest average score.

Palmer wasn’t the only one having his ups and downs. Another reason I think my dad took up golf is that it got him out of the house, where he and my mom were, seemingly, always fighting. It all came to a head about two years later, when they divorced. As was customary back then, my mom retained custody of my brother and me, and we’d only see our dad on weekends.

One of the most memorable times spent with my dad during this period was the day before my 14th birthday on Saturday, Jan. 8, 1966. It was the third round of the L.A. Open at Rancho, and Dad had gotten tickets for himself and his two kids. My brother is three years older than I am, and it was going to be the first time we were going to a golf tournament. We all wanted to be part of Arnie’s Army, those fans of Palmer who followed him around the course during a tournament. Worried that my brother and I might not be able to see Arnie over the heads of the big crowd, my dad bought us each a wide cardboard periscope. I was able to crack up my brother at each green as I whispered too loudly “Up periscope” -- like they do in the movies -- each time I used it.

The strategy my brother and I had was that we were going to wait at the 9th hole until Palmer got there, and then follow him the rest of the way. I was hoping that Arnie would plant one in the street again. What actually happened was infinitely better.

(By the way, my memory isn’t as great as the following may make it appear. Fortunately, I saved some newspapers and then magazines about the 1966 L.A. Open, which I used to help me get the following right.)

Palmer had birdied the par-5 8th hole. It took him three shots to reach the 9th green, and then he sank a putt from about 14 feet for his second birdie in a row. My brother and I raced to the 10th tee. Palmer -- with his swing that I always thought was screwy -- or maybe more accurately, like a corkscrew -- blasted his tee shot and only needed a wedge to the green. The ball landed about three feet from the pin. Birdie number three. Same story on the next hole, but the shot to the green left Arnie with a 25-footer for a birdie. Done.

It was at this point I realized that Palmer was in some sort of zone. It was written all over his face. He was concentrated and aggressive as all get-out. Hole No. 12 is a par-3. Palmer finessed a drive to within 10 feet of the pin and holed the putt. Five birdies in a row.

The Army was alive with one question: What’s the record? What’s the record? My dad had no idea. My brother didn’t know, and I certainly had no idea either.

The 13th hole at Rancho is another par-5. After three shots Palmer was on the green and about 15 feet from the hole. Damn if he didn’t sink that putt as well. I used to try and imitate his knock-knee putting stance during the few times I would play golf with my dad. Didn’t work for me at all.

The buzz within the Army was that the record for birdies was eight in a row. 

On the par-4 14th hole, which was playing at 400 yards, Arnie blasted another herculean drive. He had a short wedge shot left, which he put close to the hole, about 5 feet away. One putt and whoa, Palmer only needed one more birdie to tie the all-time PGA record for most birdies in a row.

Clearly, Arnie knew as well. He smashed another drive, but something had gone wrong. It went left into some long grass. Ordinarily I don’t think the lie would have bothered him, but later I read he said he “choked a little” on his next shot, a nine-iron. It landed on the green, but pretty far from the hole. I was guessing about 30 feet from the hole. He missed the putt. Damn. I could tell Palmer was pissed.

How pissed? Well, he birdied the next hole. And then, on the 17th he made -- well, almost made -- the shot of the day. It’s a par-3, and he pulled his tee shot just to the left of the green. Then came the almost shot -- he was about 40 feet from the hole and when his chip shot stopped rolling it was a foot from going in.

A par on 18 and Palmer had shot a 62! Down periscope. That was nine under par and tied a course record. In my mind I remember us cheering for about 15 minutes. Of course I’m sure it was only a fraction of that time. Palmer was elated. By that time I had seen, in person, Willie Mays hit and steal bases, Koufax and Drysdale pitch games, Baylor and West hit amazing shots and Bill Russell equally amazingly blocking them.

But I had never seen an athletic feat like what Palmer did. I’m sure some of the rush I felt was being part of the Army, echoing every emotion that our commander felt. Had Arnie ever had a charge as great as he did that day? I’m not the guy to ask.

Arnie won that 1966 L.A. Open, but it wasn’t easy. The next and final day of the tournament he shot a 73 -- and that’s only because he was able to sink a 30-foot putt at the end. He barely hung on.

In 1973, Arnie wrote a book about his philosophy on the golf course. It’s called “Go for Broke: My Philosophy of Winning Golf.” He co-wrote it with W.B. Furlong. It was my birthday present to my dad that year. After my dad died in 1981, I kept the book. Some excerpts:

“The time was 1960. The place was Cherry Hills Country Club. The event was the U.S. Open. On the fourth round of that tournament, I tried a shot that I’d missed three times in three rounds. I tried it again not because I’d failed -- or because I like failure -- but because I was convinced that it was the shot necessary to win the tournament.

“A bold shot?

“Yes.

“But you must play boldly to win. My whole philosophy has been based on winning golf tournaments, not on finishing a careful fifth, or seventh, or tenth.”

Palmer talks in more detail about this particular U.S. Open in the Golf Channel’s “Arnie” documentary.

Jim Murray, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times -- and, for my money, the best sportswriter ever -- on Jan. 11, 1966, wrote about Palmer’s victory in the L.A. Open that I had attended:

Palmer doesn’t play a golf course. He slugs with it. One of them leaves bloodied and bowed.

He is imitable. Like Bing Crosby when he first started singing, he encourages 10 million guys to say, “Why, I could do that!” He doesn’t outwit a golf course, feint with it, romance it, sneak up on it. He slits its throat. The golf course always knows it’s been in a fight. So does Arnie.

You don’t have to be a golf fan to recognize Arnie Palmer. He’ll be the one whose shirttail is out, whose nostrils are flaring, whose ball is where yours usually is -- under a bush, in back of a tree, down in a hollow. He’ll be bent over, sweeping leaves off it, and hitching up his trousers with his elbows.

There, the resemblance to you will end. He’ll take a 2-iron and, with a swing that would make [old-time golf great] Harry Vardon blanch, he’ll crash that ball 220 yards up on the green where it will hit the flag on one bounce and he’ll drop it in for a bird.

On that same day that Palmer shot his 62 at the 1966 L.A. Open, the page one headline in the L.A. Herald Examiner blared “U.S. Blitzes Laos” The subhead read “Supply Roads to Viet Ripped,” and under that “300 Planes Strike Day and Night.”

The war in Vietnam was raging. Dad, a World War II vet, was very conservative and a staunch supporter of the war. My 17-year-old brother was just as adamantly opposed to the war, and many of our weekend visits with our dad ended with them screaming at one another about the war.

Though I loved watching Palmer, I never really got into playing golf. I played a few times with my dad and his friends when one of them couldn’t make the foursome, and that was about it. My brother, on the other hand, took lessons and made a real effort to play -- I think he thought Dad would really like that --  but my brother wasn’t very good and eventually gave it up after several years.

Before that happened, however, when my brother did play with Dad, most of the time the challenges of the game kept them focused and friendly. My brother took that time to slowly convince our dad that we were on a wrong course in Vietnam. By the time President Johnson made his famous speech two years later, on March 31, 1968, that he would not run for re-election, our dad had also turned against the war.

Postscript: Following Johnson as president was Richard Nixon. As I was preparing this column, I found a 2008 article in a Palmer-owned publication, Kingdom, that had the following:

Famously, Vietnam rather than golf was on Nixon’s mind when he flew Palmer and Bob Hope to his San Clemente home in a U.S. Marine helicopter during the Desert Classic, the annual PGA Tour event in the Palm Springs area that still bears the name of the late, great comedian.

To Palmer’s astonishment, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Vice President Gerald Ford were also present. “It seemed,” Palmer says, “that the president wanted to pick our brains ... about how to end the war in Vietnam."

“I do remember the lengthy discussions about various strategic approaches ... including the idea of bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age to try to end the miserable, protracted war in southeast Asia.

"When it finally came my turn to express an opinion, everyone looked at me. ‘Well,’ I started, a touch reluctantly, ‘if the decision were mine to make, I guess I wouldn’t pussyfoot around. Let’s get this thing over as quickly as possible, for everyone’s sake. Why not go for the green?' "

Palmer's remark was greeted with laughter, but as he said later to Hope, “I really wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Palmer’s assessment, of course, was classic Palmer.

In his book “Go for Broke,” he writes about winning both the U.S. Open and Masters in 1960, “I won because I refused to accept the avoidance of small mistakes. I would win boldly or lose the same way. But I wasn’t going to lead a life of dear-and-near misses.

"That my philosophy worked was important to me … .

"That  it worked with a certain style was one of the accidents of history … . [W]e all know in looking back that there was rising then [in the nation] a yearning for the bold play, the bravura gesture, the indomitable defiance of odds. It was a time when the American people were beginning to feel once again that anything might be accomplished if only we were bold enough to try."

In his prime, Arnold Palmer inspired us to be as bold as he was being. What a gift.

For one amazing Saturday afternoon, as a young teenager, I was part of his Army. It was thrilling then and even now, all these years later, gives me a thrill to think about.

Here’s hoping that all of us can embrace our inner boldness. As Palmer wrote in "Go for Broke," he's had a dream his whole life, "to play the game with an unreachable perfection."

Hey you, up ahead -- look out -- some really smart, innovative, bold thinker is trying to play through -- FORE!

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