Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer is 85 years old. This week he will again serve as host to his own Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando. For true golf fans this is one of the most precious weeks on the golf calendar. Not even the great ones like Palmer can defy age. Who knows how many more of these Bay Hill events The King will be able to host?

The top five players in the Official World Golf Rankings- Rory McIlroy; Bubba Watson; Henrik Stenson; Adam Scott and Jason Day will all be in this week’s field. This is a fitting tribute to Palmer and what he did to forge the modern day game. Still, many of golf’s top players will not be at Bay Hill this week and that is too bad because this should be an event that all PGA TOUR players mark on their calendars. 

Spending a week with Arnold Palmer at this stage in his life is being in rarified air. Even his age, Palmer has a lot to offer today’s players. He is still a mentor, a great sportsman and someone who players can learn from. But, more than that, playing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational is a fitting way to say thanks to the guy who made today’s multi-million dollar purses possible.

Several years ago during the week of Bay Hill, Palmer talked about his commitment to the PGA TOUR during his early days as a professional golfer. He spoke of the obligation that he felt to attend cookouts and cocktail parties early in the week of TOUR events as a display of support to the tournament sponsors who put up the hard work and dollars. Playing in the weekly pro-am was something Palmer said he looked forward to.

More revealing was hearing Palmer say that he felt an obligation to play in every PGA TOUR stop at least once in a three or four year period of time. He admitted that it was impossible to commit to every tournament in a given year, but Palmer recognized the importance of his presence to all tournament sponsors.

Many of today’s top players will commit to a schedule that only includes 15-17 events per year. This includes the four major championships, The Players Championship plus the five World Golf Championship events. Unfortunately for the rest of the regular TOUR stops that doesn’t leave much support from the game’s top players. This was evident during the West Coast swing earlier this winter when most of the top players skipped all or most of the events.

Granted the landscape of today’s professional game is different than it was back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when Palmer was making his mark on the TOUR. Today’s players are earning millions from outside endorsements and they simply don’t need to play in 25-30 events per year. This is unhealthy for the long-term stability of the professional game. 

To Palmer’s credit, even at age 85, when his game has deserted him, he shows up at Augusta National and plays in the Par 3 tournament. He fell this winter and injured his shoulder, but he will still attempt to hit the ceremonial first tee shot to start the 2015 Masters. People don’t care where the tee shot goes. So what if Arnie tops a shot in the Par 3? This might be your last chance to see Arnold Palmer swing a golf club. 

On two occasions I had the opportunity to meet with Palmer in his second floor Bay Hill office overlooking the course he built. The first time was on the Monday after his tournament in 2013 and the subject was the proposed ban of the anchored stroke. The next time was in May 2014 and the subject was his father, Deacon, and the formation of an award by the PGA of America to recognize Palmer’s father for his accomplishments in golf.

Each time I entered Palmer’s office my heart was pounding with anticipation knowing that I was in the presence of possibly the most influential person in the sport’s history. His office is cluttered with memorabilia and family photos. Two large leather arm chairs sit in front of his desk. His big yellow lab, Mulligan, will either greet you in the receiving area outside the office or quietly keep an eye on you while softly panting on the floor next to The King. 

Palmer still has the charisma and the charm. He can still stare you down with that stern look that makes your knees tremble. His hand shake is extremely firm. The twinkle still exists in those aging eyes. The infectious smile that won the hearts of millions still comes easy for Palmer. But, sadly Arnold Palmer is entering the winter of his great life.

This is a very special week in golf. We never know when an Arnold Palmer Invitational might be the last of its kind. These are the final pages of history being turned.       

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Billy Casper

Billy Casper passed away Saturday at the age of 83. He was one of the finest gentlemen in the history of the game and one of the sports’ most underrated players. His record speaks for itself. Fifty-one PGA career wins ranks him seventh all-time. He won two U.S. Opens and one Masters. He won at least one tournament a year from 1956-71 which was a record exceeded by only Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

Casper played on eight Ryder Cup teams and his 23.5 points are the most won by an American player. He also served as Captain in 1979 at The Greenbrier when the U.S. beat Europe by a score of 17-11.

Casper’s greatest victory came in the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco when he entered the final nine holes seven shots behind Arnold Palmer. Let’s hear the rest of the story in Casper’s own words from a 2012 interview I did with him for a previous story.

“I’d played the front nine in 36, one over par. I was still the closest of anyone in the field to Arnold, but that wasn’t saying much. I was seven shots behind with nine holes to play.

“You could practically feel the energy generated by Arnold’s front nine. Every hole, the crowd got bigger- until it reached a certain critical mass and actually began to get smaller as some people, their views completely obscured, gave up and left the course for home so they could watch Arnie win on TV. I couldn’t leave, but I was as ready to place the U.S. Open crown on Arnold Palmer’s head as anyone. At that point I was two shots ahead of Jack Nicklaus and Tony Lema and as we stood on the tenth tee about to start the final nine, I said to Arnold, ‘I’d like to finish second.’

“He answered, ‘I’ll do everything I can to help you.’

“It was a light-hearted exchange; mine an acknowledgement of his commanding lead and his an acknowledgement that of course he’d help me finish second- by finishing first,” said Casper.

Over the next couple of hours, Palmer’s game unraveled and Casper slowly but surely picked up ground and eventually made up the seven-shot deficit. It was one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of the U.S. Open. Both players were tied after 72 holes and an 18-hole playoff would begin the next morning at 10:30. Casper picks up the story.

“As impressive as anything Arnold Palmer did in his entire career was the way that he handled the press conference that followed. Over the years, as I have watched countless heartbreaking losses at sporting events, live and on television, and sometimes seen the victims of those skip out on press conferences or give surly one-word responses to the media, I think of Arnold that day at Olympic,” said Casper.

Dan Jenkins was covering the U.S. Open for Sports Illustrated and on Sunday he told me the following.    

“I just remember how pissed off Arnold was (mostly at himself) and yet how sportingly he held it in. As I just tweeted this morning, nobody during Casper's peak years ever wanted to copy any part of his game, but all he did was win tournaments and finish high. If anyone ever came close to hitting as many fairways and greens as Hogan, it may have been Billy,” said Jenkins.
“I watched that last nine holes and I still can't believe what I was seeing. Most of us in the press were rooting for Arnold, of course, and rooting for him to break Hogan's 72-hole record. Arnold did confess later that he was thinking more about breaking the record than making sure he won the championship. 

Arnold took that loss real hard, but I'm not among those who thought he never got over it. He went on to challenge and came close to winning the PGAs of '68 and '70,” added Jenkins. 

And Casper saw it the same way, “For almost an hour they grilled Palmer about this shot and that shot and this decision and that decision. He sat there and took it until the last question was asked. When it was over a USGA official asked him if he wanted to exit by a side door so he could avoid the crowds out front. ‘Naw,’ he said, ‘The way I played, I deserve whatever they do to me.’”

After the press conference Palmer and Casper went their separate ways. Palmer went to a friend’s house in the city and had a quiet dinner. Casper previously agreed to do a fireside chat at a Mormon meeting house approximately 40 miles north of San Francisco. Little did Casper know when he agreed to do the fireside chat that he would be involved in an 18-hole playoff the following day for the U.S. Open. 

“A deal’s a deal. I changed and drove straight to the church, arriving almost an hour late. The chapel was full. No one had left. I can remember the length of every putt and exactly what club I hit on every shot that Sunday, but to this day the most I can remember about that fireside chat is talking about my trip to Vietnam. But I must have said something mildly interesting because it was after eleven o’clock when the meeting ended,” recalled Casper.

Casper returned to the house where he was staying in San Francisco. He hadn’t eaten since lunch. His wife, Shirley, turned on the grill and he had a midnight dinner of pork chops, green beans and salad. Then, in his own words, “I went to bed and slept like a man with nothing to lose.”

On Monday Casper fired a 69 compared to Palmer’s 73 to win the U.S. Open title. For his efforts, Casper won $25,000 of which he gave 10% to the Mormon Church. A forgotten stat from the ’66 Open is that there were only 15 rounds under 70 the entire week and Casper had four of them.
Only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have a higher percentage of Wins and Top Ten Finishes per start than Casper. Only Woods (8) has more Vardon Trophies than Casper (5). Many would place Casper among the ten best golfers in history. 

More importantly, he is considered to be one of the finest men ever to play the professional game. He and Shirley raised eleven children. The Caspers devoted their lives to their church, family and others who needed help. That is how Billy Casper would like to be remembered.