“I Guess You Can Say That’s True!”: The Day I Met the Real Arnold Palmer
During the first throes of my lifelong love affair with golf, Arnie was my idol, my first favorite, a hero to me then, and far more than a King. Arnie was God. My dad had bought me an Arnold Palmer golf glove, its smooth, white cabretta leather emitting a pungent odor that I find impossible to name or compare with anything else. I would sleep wearing that multi-colored/umbrella-embroidered Arnold Palmer golf glove. One could say Arnie and the game of golf had an equal grip on me.
The image of Arnold Palmer remained fresh in my mind after the conclusion of the 2022 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, which I enjoyed riveted to my TV. An equally vivid memory is the hour I spent with the King many years ago interviewing him about golf clubs, his own and his history with them, and his Arnold Palmer Golf Equipment Company. That interview took place at The Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles in 1996, during the tournament week of the PGA Senior Tour unfolding there, and remains one of the highlights of my golf writing career.
I was the Editor-in-Chief of Petersen’s Golfing Magazine, and knowing the (then called) Senior Tour was coming to L.A., I decided to see if I could interview Arnold Palmer during the tournament week. The publication would feature him on the cover, and the interview would focus on the King’s own golf equipment company. Arnie’s illustrious secretary Doc Giffin told me, “Arnold will do it. Just find him during one of the practice days of the tournament at Wilshire C.C. and arrange for a time when he’s free to talk.” So, early in the tournament week, I delivered a note with copies of Petersen’s Golfing Magazine to the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Arnie was staying.
“This is for Mr. Palmer. He and I have an interview scheduled this week at the tournament.” The hotel’s desk clerk said he’d deliver them.
Thursday morning, there he was…The King, on the far-right side of the Wilshire Country Club driving range, pounding one driver after another, each shot rifling off the persimmon driver he still used with his signature low bullet-draw shape as if the ball itself were signing Arnie’s name onto the air.
I waited until he took a break from his machine-like ballistic booming, then walked up to him and then said: “Mr. Palmer? I’m Andy Brumer, Editor of Petersen’s Golfing Magazine. Doc Giffin said you’re aware I’m here to interview you about your golf equipment company.”
“Who are you? I don’t know anything about any interview. I’m practicing.”
He did not divert his eyes from his practice station, his Holy Land, and I struggled to accept the irony. How often had I heard that “Arnie treats the bellhop the same way he treats the President of the United States”?
“Maybe’s he’s hit a few too many away from the center of his clubface?” I thought, trying to rationalize the snub. I knew I had to give it another try.
“Well…. sir,” I muttered reverently, “Doc Giffin assured me you knew about this interview. Did you happen to get the copies of my magazine I left for you at your hotel?”
“What magazine?” Arnie snapped, but with a whiff of confusion in his voice. I did understand all the commitments he had to keep during a tournament week.
Well aware of my place in the pecking order of all things Arnold Palmer, I decided not to force this interview request further.
The bellhop, the President…and me.
“I’m really sorry, Mr. Palmer, please forgive the interruption.”
“Smack…. click, wop/wallop… those blistering drives sung off the King’s driver face and serenaded me as I walked away from him on the range.
“When do you want to do it?” I heard Arnie’s inimitable voice lilting toward me.
“Whenever you want,” I turned around and said.
“Let’s do it now.”
I followed him into the Wilshire Country Club’s clubhouse, the nooks and crannies he knew as if he owned the place (perhaps he did). He opened the door to a small card room, and we sat across a small round table. Out came my little micro-cassette tape recorder. Distracted and impatient, Arnie fidgeted with the gold Rolex on his left wrist before folding his hands into one massive fist. Perfectly synchronized (and, I figured, well-practiced), he sighed a bit, raised his eyebrows, and flared his nostrils as if to say, “So?”
“What is your memory of your first set of golf clubs?” I asked.
“My mother cut down her Patty Berg Wilson’s women’s clubs for me when I was a boy.”
“How are things going with the Arnold Palmer Golf equipment company these days?”
“How did you decide on the multi-colored umbrella for your company’s logo,” I asked tersely.
“Every other one that we wanted was taken, and the idea was, ‘we’re all under the same umbrella of golf.’”
I sensed a human opening, so I took a chance.
“Well, you could say that umbrella has been up and down a few times during your career, right?
Mr. Palmer began to laugh and laugh, very loudly, a belly laugh.
“I guess you can say that’s true,” he said, his face lighting up.
But here’s the point, I think he realized his dismissiveness, if not his rudeness towards me, wasn’t called for, and he re-entered the interview with an amazing amount of attentiveness, focus, and multi-sentenced answers. For example, responding to my question about his being a real tinkerer with his equipment,” he said, “I’ve won golf tournaments in which I didn’t have one club in my bag on Sunday that I had started with on Thursday, not even the putter.”
Coda; Later that afternoon
The tournament PR man approached me in the media press room.
“Mr. Palmer is going to host a little gathering of a few golf writers early this evening upstairs in the clubhouse and he’s invited you to attend.”
I felt like the President of the United States.