A Conversation with Arnold Palmer
With the most historic and prestigious championship in senior golf being played for the 75th time this week, it presents an opportunity to reflect on the marvelous accomplishments of the legendary names that served as an impetus for what became the Champions Tour. None is bigger than Arnold Palmer.
Arnold Palmer helped create modern golf in that electric flash when he, his charisma and go-for-the-throat game intersected with the blossoming of television. Many years later, he similarly jump-started senior golf as well.
Palmer turned 50 in September 1979, and when he made his debut in senior golf more than a year later, at the Senior PGA Championship, he won. Palmer, a 53-year member of the PGA of America, recently reflected on his two Senior PGA Championship victories, the state of senior golf today and his contributions toward its success.
Q: The Senior PGA Tour was launched in 1980, four months after you turned 50, with four events, the last being the Senior PGA Championship in December. So you were 1-for-1 as a senior. How do you just step in and win a major?
PALMER: I was excited by the fact that I was playing in it, and I certainly was going to give it everything I had. I don’t know (that I expected to win), but I can tell you it wasn’t easy. I ended up tied with my old friend, Paul Harney, at 1 over, and I won with a birdie on the first playoff hole, the 18th.
Q: Did it make up for the PGA Championship you came so close to but never could win?
PALMER: Well, I suppose there was some consolation for not having won the PGA, in winning the Senior. But I don’t think I’ll ever totally get over the fact that I didn’t win the PGA Championship.
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Q: Still a painful memory?
Q: You came so close. Tied for second three times. Were the gods taunting you, saying, in effect, ‘You did everything else in golf so we’re not going to let you have the PGA?’
PALMER: (No answer, but an obvious chuckle.)
Q: You won another Senior PGA Championship under odd circumstances. It was in 1984, when there were two Senior PGAs. The first one, in January, was supposed to be in 1983 but was bumped into 1984 because the Ryder Cup was scheduled at the course, PGA National, in the fall of 1983. You won by two over Don January, but you had a strange week — a 63 in the second round, then 79 in the third. Where did that come from?
PALMER: Well, not to alibi, but the weather turned awful. Very cold for Florida, and wind and rain. [Only two players shot better than 73 in that round.]
Q: Early in your senior golf years, you split your time between the regular tour and the senior tour.
PALMER: Tell the truth, I was a little reluctant to even play the senior tour. I was still doing relatively well on the regular tour.
Q: The Senior PGA Tour [now the Champions Tour] began with four tournaments in 1980, and interest was sparked when you won your debut. But everyone knew the tour needed some strong recognition, and that meant you. You had to play, the way Bobby Jones had to play in the early Masters. Who finally convinced you?
PALMER: Well, thanks for the kind words. Not sure that’s all correct, but lots of people did ask me to play: Deane Beman, the PGA Tour commissioner at the time. And Don January, one of the big factors in founding the tour. I guess those were the two main people.
Q: Speaking of attractions, there was the SBC Championship at San Antonio, and you weren’t sure you were playing in that senior event. You were in your shop at Latrobe when the tournament director phoned.
PALMER: Yep. I remember that. I was working on some clubs. I told him I would play.
Q: Did you know that after they announced it in the paper, ticket sales went up by 40 percent?
PALMER: Really? I recall I didn’t do all that well in the tournament. But I’m glad if I could be of some help.
Q: In the Masters last month, Miguel Angel Jimenez, who just turned 50, challenged to the end and finished fourth. Bernhard Langer was 56 and tied for eighth, and Freddie Couples, 54, was in the running until the fourth round and tied for 20th. What does this say about the quality of the Champions Tour?
PALMER: We’ve been saying it all along; these guys are very good. No question. They’re great golfers. Are they pushovers? No way.
Q: You have had as much impact on golf as any individual who’s ever played the game. How do you look back on your contributions?
PALMER: If I have brought the game to the people ... I am happy for that. My contributions are only in line with what I think, and I can name other people, like (President) Eisenhower and a few others, that have had a lot to do with people becoming more aware of the game. I think as time goes on and more people have the opportunity to play the game, and with all the programs we are initiating to help youngsters get into the game, it will be as commonplace as baseball is. I really believe that and hope that it happens.
This feature appears courtesy of Golfweek and the Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid Championship Program. To see a digital version of the Championship Program, click here.