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'Arnold Palmer Bridge' dedicated to golf legend at Firestone Country Club

By Bob Dyer
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Arnold Palmer is widely credited with introducing the once-exclusive game of golf to the masses.

He also is credited with nicknaming one of the most famous holes in golf history, No. 16 on the South Course at Firestone Country Club.

His connection to "The Monster" became official Wednesday afternoon when a plaque was dedicated on the stone structure that crosses a creek near the pond in front of the 16th green. It will forevermore be known as the Arnold Palmer Bridge.

The bronze memorial, mounted right on the walking surface, cites the three Firestone tournaments he won and credits him with naming the hole.

RELATED: Arnold Palmer honored at the US Open on 18th flag at Erin Hills

Among the speakers was Peter Jacobsen, this year's Ambassador of Golf. A seven-time PGA Tour winner and stellar TV broadcaster, he was a close pal to Arnie, who died in September at the age of 87.

Jacobsen stole the show with a story that perfectly illustrates why Palmer became one of the most beloved figures in golf.

It was 1977, Jacobsen's rookie season. On a Monday, he qualified for his first PGA tournament, which would be played later that week at Pebble Beach in California.

He was so excited that he drove to the course that same afternoon to play a few practice holes. After playing for a while, he realized the sun was going down, so he skipped ahead several holes to play the last three and wind up at the clubhouse.

He walked to the 16th tee and hit three or four drives, feeling great about himself.

But "all of a sudden," he said, "I heard a noise. Coming around the corner from the 15th green was a throng of people -- 200-300 people. I didn't know what that was. I looked back and this crowd of people was being led by Arnold Palmer."

Even during practice rounds, "Arnie's Army" was omnipresent.

"I was petrified. I thought, 'I just got in front of the great Arnold Palmer!' You don't do that on tour. You can maybe join other groups but you just can't cut in front of somebody.

"I stood off on the side, my caddy and me. I didn't really know what to do.

"Arnold walked up to me -- he could have big-timed me; I can tell you the names of a lot of people who would have big-timed me --but he walked up, stuck out that big palm of his and said, 'I'm Arnold Palmer. Can I join you?'

"That really speaks to the warmth and nature of Arnold Palmer, how accepting and inclusive he was....One of the warmest people you'll ever meet."

Palmer chatted up Jacobsen and offered encouragement as they played their way in. It was the start of a 40-year friendship.

"What that did for me as a rookie upstart made me feel as though I belonged," Jacobsen said. "That was the essence of Arnold Palmer."

One of Arnie's two daughters, Amy Palmer, attended the event but didn't address the crowd, which numbered a few hundred.

She told me afterward that her father "would have been absolutely honored and delighted to have this gathering of people here.

"It would have meant a tremendous amount to him. This was a special place to him. To have Peter and [PGA Tour Commissioner Jay] Monahan and everyone else here in attendance would have flattered him greatly."

Given Palmer's focus on others, it was appropriate that the dedication was preceded by "Arnie's March Ohio," a new charity walk around the course that raised money for Akron Children's Hospital and UH Rainbow Babies and Children's.

Modeled after Arnie's annual March Against Children's Cancer at his Bay Hill country club in Orlando, the march began near the clubhouse and circled around the 16th hole before winding up near the bridge.

Legend has it that Arnie labeled the hole "The Monster" immediately after butchering it during the 1960 PGA Championship, when he carded a triple-bogey 8.

But if that's the case, there's no proof in the Beacon Journal archives, and the Beacon quoted him extensively throughout that tournament. More likely, he named it somewhere down the line, probably as he was experiencing horrible flashbacks before a subsequent appearance here.

Arnie won two Firestone tournaments after his PGA nightmare. But asked by a reporter 15 years later whether he remembered his 1960 struggle at No. 16, he grimly replied, "I remember all eight shots."

The infamous 8 took place during the third round. After witnessing Saturday's competition from the CBS production trailer, the Beacon's Dick Shippy wrote:

"The camera picked up the 16th in time to focus on Palmer blowing himself out of the PGA. Arnie was dropping out of the lateral water hazard. He chipped weakly, he three-putted...for an 8."

The TV broadcast missed his drive into a trap, his fairway wood into the rough and his pitching wedge into a drainage ditch.

Give him a snowman.

After leading the field on the first day, Palmer hacked around the front nine the second day at four over par but finished with nine straight pars. By then he was already angry with his monster-to-be.

"Some of the greens are getting awfully rough out there," he said. "The ball was bouncing pretty badly.

"That 16th green is ridiculous. I hit my third shot as well as I ever have in my life and that ball didn't even say 'hello' as it sailed over into the crowd. You need a backboard on that green."

Still, heading into Saturday he was only two strokes back and had a solid chance to become the first golfer ever to win the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year. After his 8...not so much.

Our microfilm also reveals that Arnie carded an 8 on the hole during a practice round a week earlier, as well as a 7 during a practice round on the Monday before the tourney.

What was so monstrous about The Monster? At that point, it was a "mere" 625 yards long, compared to 667 today. But in those days, players were using wooden drivers and balls that weren't nearly as juiced. A 300-yard drive was considered phenomenal. These days, it's ordinary.

Complicating the equation is that the pond lurking immediately in front of the green is bigger than the tiny green.

To be fair, Palmer wasn't the only golfer to struggle at 16.

During the 1962 American Golf Classic, Paul Bondeson carded a 10. He popped two balls in water, hit another lousy chip shot and then flung his wedge into the pond. Curtis Strange matched that number the same year.

All-time great Lee Trevino carded a nine during the 1976 World Series of Golf and cursed at the hole when asked about it the following year.

But Arnold Palmer named this beast, and Arnold Palmer eventually conquered this beast. He was revered by multiple generations of golf fans. And now, fittingly, Arnold Palmer has a bridge that cements his legacy to Firestone Country Club.

This article is written by Bob Dyer from The Akron Beacon Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.