Wednesday 17 January 2018

Palmer's spirit will stir the States in a battle he loved

Missing out on the 1959 USA team ignited the late King's love affair with the Ryder Cup

Arnold Palmer believed there was nothing to match standing on the first tee in a Ryder Cup match. Photo: AP Photo
Arnold Palmer believed there was nothing to match standing on the first tee in a Ryder Cup match. Photo: AP Photo

Dermot Gilleece

When the 41st Ryder Cup surges to a climax at Hazeltine National later today, I'll be thinking of Arnold Palmer. With impeccable timing, he passed from us last Sunday, 10 years and 24 hours after this great event reached a glorious conclusion here in Ireland on a course bearing his name.

He loved the Ryder Cup. Recalling his debut at Royal Lytham in 1961, he said: "What I remember most was standing with my team-mates near the first tee and feeling a lump rise in my throat and tears fill my eyes as the brass band played The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by God Save the Queen. To make it even more special, I had won my first British Open title only three months previously, down the road at Royal Birkdale."

His warmth and generosity of spirit created an enduring bond with those who were fortunate enough to cross his path. For my own part, these virtues found perfect expression in a little exchange when I interviewed him at The K Club in 2001.

In reply to some basic, biographical questions, he said gently: "Most of that stuff is in my latest book, you know. Don't you have a copy?" When I explained that I hadn't, he asked for my business card so he could have one sent to me.

All of which caused me to have another look at the book, A Golfer's Life: Arnold Palmer by James Dobson, a few days ago. Which led to a remarkable discovery.

The signed copy arrived at my home little more than a week after our meeting. And inside was a card from his right-hand man, Doc Giffin. It read: "Dermot - Happy to fulfil Arnold's promise to send you a copy of his latest book. Glad to hear from you via the Boss. Best regards . . . "

It was only on noting the date on the card - July 30, 2001 - that I realised it was actually the same day I had done the interview. Which meant that Palmer had passed the request for the book on to Giffin, presumably in a telephone call, within hours of talking to me. Small wonder he had become one of the most-loved practitioners in the history of the game.

As he put it, with disarming simplicity: "I happen to love golf and I happen to love people, which has proved to be a very rewarding combination. I believe it explains why I have had so much good fortune in my life. I find if you're nice to people, it always comes back to you, one way or another."

There were sound reasons why the Ryder Cup meant so much to him. Foremost among them was the fact that he happened to miss the Walker Cup matches at St Andrews in 1955, when Joe Carr and Cecil Ewing were members of the home team.

"I was devastated that after winning the US Amateur in 1954, I found I wouldn't be able to play in the US team," he told me. "I couldn't afford it. I had no money. I had gone to Wake Forest on a full scholarship - my books, tuition and room and board. And there wasn't money for any frills."

So, instead of extending his amateur career into 1955, he eloped and married Winnie and went on to join the PGA Tour. With a conspiratorial grin, he said: "I met Winnie when she was a hostess at a tournament I was invited to play in after the US Amateur. I met her on Tuesday, took her out Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and asked her to marry me on the Saturday. I had a job as a manufacturer's rep, making $500 a month. But I had no money. Zero."

So, how did he plan to finance a marriage? "Well," came the child-like reply, "I was bold." He explained: "After asking her to marry me, I had to buy her a ring. And not having any money, I had to borrow from my golfing friends, who were more than happy to oblige. It cost $4,000, which left me seriously in debt." Again, that disarming smile.

Success, however, wasn't long in coming. In fact prior to the naming of the 1959 US Ryder Cup team for the matches at Eldorado CC, he had won the 1958 Masters and nine other tournaments since 1955. "Had I not been serving an apprenticeship imposed by the PGA, I would easily have collected sufficient Ryder Cup points to make the team," he said. "I must admit that the injustice stuck in my craw for years."

He went on: "Just think of it. If this restrictive clause wasn't removed, players of such world-class as Tiger Woods and Justin Leonard wouldn't have made the Ryder Cup squad which went to Valderrama in 1997."

When the call eventually came, Palmer had some wonderful jousts with Christy O'Connor and Peter Alliss, beginning in 1963 at East Lake, where Rory McIlroy landed his windfall last Sunday. And the pair had a memorable fourball victory at Birkdale in 1965, beating Palmer and Dave Marr on the 18th.

Then came the 1967 matches in Houston, where US skipper Ben Hogan, introduced his players as "the finest golfers in the world," before imparting the surprising news that they'd play with the small (1.62ins) ball. "Say, Ben, is that right: we're going to play the small ball?" Palmer enquired. To which Hogan replied tersely: "That's what I said." Palmer was then alleged to have questioned what if he didn't have any small balls, prompting Hogan to retort: "Who said you're playing, Palmer?"

Referring to this incident in his 1999 book, Palmer wrote: " . . . permit me to set the record straight on a matter that was circulated erroneously for years - namely that Ben Hogan chewed me out at one point for assuming I would be playing every match. While I was hardly a favourite of Mr Hogan, no such heated conversation ever took place. Ben conducted himself with his usual cool dignity and I did my job, and the results of his captaincy and my team play pretty much speak for themselves." In fact Palmer won five matches out of five.

"For me, the tournament was always about something far grander and more personal than income and money-lists," he went on. "It was about playing for your country, your people and therefore yourself, and for the pure joy of trying to beat the best, in an honourable game. The game brings out the best in us and the best will always bring out their games in the Ryder Cup.

"And it doesn't matter how many Open championships or titles you may have won, when you stand on the tee for a Ryder Cup match, your stomach rumbles like a kid turning up for his first tournament. And there's simply no experience in golf quite like being part of your first opening ceremony, unless perhaps it's the closing ceremony after your side has won."

Though he captained a winning US team at Laurel Valley in 1975, he had no words of advice for Tom Lehman prior to The K Club encounter.

"Once the matches began, there was nothing he could do, which can be frustrating," he said. "All any captain can do is help the guys prepare as best they can and try to put together some teams that click. The rest is up to the guys on the course."

For the singles battles at Oak Hill in 1995, Byron Nelson filled a ceremonial role on the first tee as an icon of the American game. One imagines a presence of even greater stature being there today, his spirit urging his fellow countrymen along a victory path he once trod so proudly.

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