Monday 5 December 2016

Dermot Gilleece: Arnold Palmer was the ultimate people person and had strong ties with Irish golf

Dermot Gilleece

Published 26/09/2016 | 12:39

FILE - Arnold Palmer, one of golf's dominate players with seven major titles, including four Masters, one United States Open and two British Opens, has died, according to published reports September 25, 2016. He was 85. American golfer Arnold Palmer, circa 1975. (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
FILE - Arnold Palmer, one of golf's dominate players with seven major titles, including four Masters, one United States Open and two British Opens, has died, according to published reports September 25, 2016. He was 85. American golfer Arnold Palmer, circa 1975. (Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Arnold Palmer played his first and last links tournaments on Irish terrain. The first was the Canada Cup at Portmarnock in 1960 and the last was the Senior British Open at Royal Co Down in 2001.

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He became Sam Snead’s partner at Portmarnock when the original choice, Ben Hogan, withdraw. In fact it could be argued that he should have been given the original nod, given that he had already won the US Masters and the US Open that year.

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From Portmarnock, Palmer headed for St Andrews and the Centenary Open Championship in which he finished runner-up to Ken Nagle. More importantly, he totally revitalised the event when returning in 1961 for a memorable victory at Royal Birkdale. And he retained the title at Troon the following year.

On the occasion of his links swansong in 2001, I happened to interview him at The K Club. He had gone there from Royal Co Down where he had missed the cut.

As usual, he was remarkably charming, the ultimate people person - a trait which made him arguably the most loved tournament golfer, certainly of the modern era. An example of this was his reaction to my questions about fairly well known aspects of his career.

“Most of that stuff is in my latest book,” he said, gently. When I admitted that I hadn’t read it, he promptly promised to send me a copy. And lo and behold, about 10 days later, a copy of the book arrived at my Dublin home.

Read more: Rory McIlroy leads the tributes after 'King' of golf Arnold Palmer (87) passes away

Apart from tournament appearances here, he formed strong ties with this country through his golf-design company. When Tralee Golf Club relocated to Barrow from their original nine holes at Mounthawk in the early 1980s,  they looked to Palmer as the designer. And I remember meeting him on at least two occasions at the magnificent new venue, of which he was justifiably proud.

Then, of course, there was The K Club, where he did equally impressive work. Opened in July 1991, it was built as a tournament venue and clearly stood up to examination by the world’s leading players, including Tiger Woods, during the Ryder Cup of 2006.

Palmer was easy to like. Though a fierce competitor, he never lost sight of the importance of the fans to the continued development of the tournament game.  So it was that he gave generously of his time to autograph hunters and generally exuded such warmth that “Arnie’s Army” became a key element of the American scene, during the 1960s and beyond.

He made his final Open appearance at St Andrews in 1995 and, as they say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was an occasion when he was left in no doubt as to the immense contribution he had made to the game’s premier event over the previous 35 years.

We’ve lost a great man - a golfing legend.

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