Arnold Palmer and ‘Golf’

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I should preface this piece: Arnold Palmer, who died Sunday, got me interested in golf. Along with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays and Bob Cousy, Arnie was my childhood hero.

Never has there been a more charming, mesmerizing figure in sports. I was a rank and file member of Arnie’s Army. Let’s put it this way: I probably still swing the club too hard because of Arnie.

Now then: This was 1979 or 1980. I was in my late 20s covering Mississippi State and golf for The Clarion-Ledger, but had been offered a job at the Orlando Sentinel where Brookhaven native Larry Guest was the sports editor and sports columnist.

Larry had offered me the job but still wanted me to fly down to Orlando to visit the newspaper and play golf. He probably just wanted to win 20 bucks off me (which he did).

Rick Cleveland

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

Larry was a member of Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge and that’s where we went early one morning to play. But first we went into the grill for breakfast and there he sat: Arnold Palmer, by himself, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

“Hey Arnie,” Larry said.

“Nice column,” Arnie replied. “Join me?”

We did.

Understand, my profession has allowed me to meet many of sports superstars, including Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, and many, many others. But those were mostly in interview situations.

This was different. This was Arnie and this was at his club, over breakfast. There he sat, tanned and smiling with those great, big forearms and that deep, smooth, unmistakeable voice.

Larry explained the reason for my visit. Arnie said I should take the job. He and Larry talked about things going on at the club. Arnie said he wasn’t playing well at the time, and he wasn’t. He was on the downside of his career. But he made it clear he wasn’t giving up. In fact, his plan was to practice that day.

We had a pleasant breakfast and I didn’t choke on my eggs and bacon.

So we finished, said our pleasantries and Larry and I headed for the first tee.

Arnold Palmer reacts after hitting a ceremonial tee shot to open the 2011 Masters Tournament.

AP file photo

Arnold Palmer reacts after hitting a ceremonial tee shot to open the 2011 Masters Tournament.

We were taking practice swings, talking about Palmer when around the corner a golf cart approached. It was Arnie.

He stopped, flashed that smile and said: “OK, let see what you got.”

Guest looked at me and said: “You’re up.”

And, suddenly, I couldn’t feel my legs. Here I was on the first tee at Bay Hill, and, there, 15 feet away, watching, was Arnold Palmer.

At that point, I needed an Arnold Palmer, with vodka.

“Let ‘er rip,” Arnie said.

I teed it up. I got behind the ball and stared down the fairway. I probably said a silent prayer for contact. I probably took a deep breath. I know I took a huge swing. I made solid contact.

I would love to tell you that I hit a nice draw down the middle of the fairway.

I did not.

I did hit it a long way, but I blocked it, dead right, far out of the fairway. Any pro will tell you blocked shots often result from nerves and pressure. You get in a rush. Your body gets ahead of your hands. The clubface remains open. The ball goes to the right.

This one went right of Spiro T. Agnew.

I choked is what I did.

I glanced over at Palmer, who smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

“Golf,” he said. And then he drove off.

Golf.

•••

Mississippi native Larry Guest writes about Arnold Palmer and many other sports superstars in Sports Icons ‘R Funny.

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog.

  • Charlie Mitchell

    Glad you didn’t move to Orlando.