Monday, September 26, 2016

Arnold Palmer Reflections

At 8:36 p.m. on Sunday night I received a text from Alex Miceli, Publisher of Golfweek magazine. “Ted, Arnold passed away today.”
Five words. One Sentence. A message that I will never forget and always remember exactly when and where I was when I got the sad news that Arnold Palmer, The King of Golf, had died at the age of 87.

There are thousands of stories being written this week about Arnold and how he uniquely touched the lives of so many. Depending on your age, you remember him as a great golfer, a philanthropist, a celebrity and certainly the face of golf. Arnold is to golf what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Palmer transcended the sport of golf.

On Wednesday, March 27, 2013, I met with Arnold in his Bay Hill office to discuss the United States Golf Association’s proposed ban on the anchoring. Palmer had been a vocal supporter of the USGA over the years as you would expect from a former U.S. Open champion. He had the utmost respect for the rules and traditions of the game. The purpose of the meeting was not to change Palmer’s mind, it was simply to explain why the PGA of America opposed the proposed ban.

Palmer was relatively quiet on that day. As he listened intently to my thoughts on anchoring, he looked down at his desk top and pushed two of his trademark umbrella pins around the desk with his massive index fingers. When I finished he looked up, raised his hands in the air and said, “My fear is that all of this will lead to two sets of Rules in the game and that would be bad for golf.”
I figured that was my cue that this meeting was over. When I stood up from the chair directly in front of his desk, Palmer looked sternly at me and asked, “What’s your hurry?”

As I sat down he started talking about his family. He pulled out some pictures of his grandchildren. Then he pointed his finger at me and said, “Now I’m going to tell you some things about the PGA of America that you may not know.”   

The PGA Championship was the only major championship that Palmer never won, so his relationship with the PGA was different. But, on this day he wanted to talk about his father, Deacon, who in Palmer’s words was “a cripple.” Arnold said his dad was denied PGA membership for a time because of his physical handicap. Arnold bristled as he told the story. It was obvious that there were deep-seeded feeling of animosity towards the PGA. I listened to what he said and even though I knew the PGA never discriminated against the handicapped I felt compelled to research the matter.

A couple of weeks later, I sent him a two-page letter detailing the timeline of his dad’s career which ultimately did result in a PGA membership in 1946. However, there was clearly a nine-year time lag between when Deacon was eligible and when he actually became a PGA member.

A year went by and I still had not heard from Palmer. Eventually, I broached the subject of the letter at the 2014 Masters when I served as a rules official with Dow Finsterwald, the 1958 PGA champion and longtime friend of Arnold’s. Dow had lunch a few days later with Arnold at Bay Hill and asked if he had received the letter. When Palmer said he did, Dow asked why he hadn’t responded. Palmer said, “Because I don’t know what I want to say yet.”

I had become convinced that something did happen with Deacon Palmer and his attempt to be a PGA member. He only needed a couple of signatures from members of the Tri-State PGA in order to become a member. It was back in the 1930’s when this was in question. Unfortunately no one was still around who could shed any light on the situation. Was it because Deacon actually got into golf as a greenskeeper and he was looked down on by PGA professionals? Or, was it because he was handicapped? One thing was for sure, Arnold felt positive that the circumstances were unfair.

Ultimately, I returned to Bay Hill to present Arnold and his daughter, Amy Saunders, with the idea of creating the Deacon Palmer Award which would recognize a PGA professional who embodied all of the characteristics of Deacon. The annual award winner would be someone who was a servant to their golf club and community who went out of their way to teach and promote the game BUT most importantly the person had overcome a major obstacle in their life on the way to a successful career in golf.

When I explained what we wanted to do with the Deacon Palmer Award and asked for Arnold’s blessing it was a monumental moment in my life. He looked at me, tears streaming from his eyes and said, “Pap would have liked that.”

The relationship between the PGA of America and Arnold Palmer had been resurrected. As I reflect back to my PGA presidency, those two meetings with Arnold in his Bay Hill office were so special because it exposed a side of Arnold Palmer that very few people ever saw.   
He was The King, but he was also a man of the people. He was confident, but never cocky. Every autograph he signed was clear and legible. Arnold Palmer founded his own hospital, flew his own plane and concocted his own drink. And all of that was in his free time.

Tom Watson might have said it best when he talked about the impact Palmer had on today’s professional golf Tour, “Frank Beard said that we owe 80 cents of every dollar we earn to Arnold. That’s true.”

Today, the King is dead. But, the impact he made on millions who enjoy the sport of golf will truly transcend time. He wasn’t the greatest golfer who ever played the game, but he is without a doubt the greatest man ever associated with golf.   

Friday, August 12, 2016

“I’ll take any medal over a major championship”

Bubba Watson sat in the media center at the PGA Championship at Baltusrol two weeks ago and patiently answered questions. You never know what you might get from Bubba. The only guarantee is an honest answer.

Would you rather win an Olympic Gold medal or the PGA Championship?
“I’ve won two major championships, so that’s an easy question,” quipped Watson. “I’ll take the Gold. In fact, I’ll take any medal over the PGA Championship.”

Not all players felt that way leading up to the Summer Games in Rio. The top four players in the world all bypassed these Olympics for reasons that stemmed from the threat of the Zika virus to apprehension about safety and security in Rio. By now, the absence of Jason Day (1), Dustin Johnson (2), Jordan Spieth (3) and Rory McIlroy (4) is old news. Throw in denials by Adam Scott (7), Branden Grace (10) and Hideki Matsuyama (19) and it was a bitter pill for the International Golf Federation to swallow. The IGF had worked hard to get golf back in the Olympics.     
“Success will be measured on a number of levels,” said Peter Dawson this week. He is the president of the IGF. “First that we have a compelling and exciting event, that the spectators, many of whom have never been exposed to golf, learn a little about golf, and we’ll never know if someone who watches will be inspired to play golf, but statistically some of that must happen.”

As the players filtered into Rio in the past week, golf in the Olympics has really gained momentum and interest. Once they arrived it seemed that Zika and security were no longer in play. It reminded me of when I went to Sochi, Russia for the 2014 winter games. NBC Nightly News reported massive cell phone hacking and instructed visitors to not turn phones on in Sochi. 

The Washington Post reported that Al Queda possessed hand held rocket launchers and they could be positioned in the mountains near the Sochi airport with the ability to shoot down incoming and outgoing planes. I asked myself “Why am I going?” My family begged me not to make the trip. Once in Sochi, I never felt safer and thoroughly enjoyed the Olympic competition. It was American press propaganda at its finest and I think Rio is a target too.

Jaime Diaz of Golf Digest is in Rio and had this to offer, “Rio is naturally beautiful, as the television shots of the iconic coastline drive home, but other than the stadiums and the arenas where the games are played, the infrastructure and amenities are inferior quality and workmanship.

“The five-story media center was built in a rush, with unfurnished rooms everywhere and unreliable plumbing,” added Diaz. “In our apartment, built specifically to house visitors to the Olympics, a mirror over the bathroom sink shattered in the middle of the night. It had been held up by four strips of double-edged tape.

“But, simply that golf is in the Olympics will be a success. And really, for one, but essential reason. The players who bought in and came to Rio have seen their expectations exceeded,” concluded Diaz.
At #5 in the world, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson is the highest ranked player in the world to be in Rio. Stenson won the Open Championship at Troon last month and offered an interesting perspective. “Believe me, I’m proud to be the Open Champion. But around the world, not many know what that means. But, most people know what an Olympic Gold Medal is.”

Joining Bubba in representing the United States are Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed. Fowler arrived early and joined Michael Phelps in leading the U.S. delegation at the Opening ceremonies.

“I speak for myself, but I feel like I speak for the rest of the guys that if there’s a chance at winning the golf tournament or taking a risk possibly down the stretch to win the gold, I don’t think we are going to play it safe by any means,” said Fowler.

Watson was seated nearby and he interjected, “I’m going to layup and go for bronze,” he said which prompted laughter in the room. “There’s no money changing hands. It’s all about having that medal around your neck and being on the podium.”

The quality of the Olympic golf field is not up to normal PGA Tour standards, let alone a major championship. Sixty players will be represented by 34 countries. However, there are some well-known players in the field besides the ones I’ve mentioned.  Justin Rose, Martin Kaymer, Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Danny Willett are in Rio. And golf fans will get to some new faces like Marcus Fraser of Australia who jumped out to an early lead on Thursday.

At 45 years of age, Harrington has an interesting perspective. He took an active role back in 2009 to pitch golf to the IGF. Back then he was ranked seventh in the world and he is now 128th. Harrington is representing Ireland because McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell all elected not to play.
“I absolutely thought I would be here,” said Harrington. “But that’s the nature of the sport, when you’re at the top of your game, you don’t believe it’s ever going to change. You think it’s going to last forever. Hindsight says that’s not true.”

It makes you wonder what some of the players who chose not to go to Rio are thinking this week………… and four years from now.