Saturday, September 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Arnie!

Today is September 10. Tomorrow, September 11, is my birthday. Virtually the entire world knows September 11 for another event that happened 10 years ago, but I stubbornly refuse to get drawn into that since, 43 years prior to planes crashing towers, I was born. So I’ve been around longer than the terrorists. But as I stated, this is September 10. And 82 years ago today, Arnold Daniel Palmer was born. I’ve always been kinda proud that me & Arnie darn near share the same birthday.

I grew up in Ohio, and one of my personal heroes is Jack Nicklaus. Heck, I even named my son after him (no, not Jack, his name is Nicholas…different spelling but same pronunciation). Jack is widely known as the greatest golfer ever, as his record is unmatched. Nobody took hold of golf tournaments and finished them off better than Jack. When his name appeared on the leaderboard the rest of the field would do a collective ‘Oh shit’ and usually fold. Definitely the most respected and feared competitor ever to step onto a course.

But Arnie was the most loved.

I had the pleasure to watch Arnie play back in his heyday of the late 60’s and early 70’s. I remember my first impression of him was how big his forearms were. I was maybe ten years old, and my dad had pretty good forearms by virtue of being a plumber by trade, but after seeing Arnie’s, there was no doubt that he would destroy my dad in arm wrestling. They were huge!

The other thing I remember from that encounter was Arnie had a charisma and connectivity to the gallery no golfer has ever had. On one tee, hundreds of people, including me, awaited his arrival. When he came through the ropes, the applause was on a decibel level reserved for heads of state. Perhaps this is why his nickname is The King. Anyway, Arnie had this habit of scanning the gallery, looking people right in the eye. And on this day, he did that with me – for a brief instance, Arnold Palmer looked 10-year-old Jerry straight in the eye and gave me a slight nod of his head and a wink. At that moment I was in orbit and had my hero chosen. Arnie looked at me!

As I came to find out, this was a regular occurrence with Arnie. He played to the crowds, sometimes to the detriment of his game. Oftentimes he was goaded into hitting a shot he should not have tried because the gallery insisted he go for broke. Coincidentally, that was the name of one of his books – Go For Broke. In contrast, I cannot imagine Jack ever letting the gallery dictate what shot he was going to hit. For Jack, the course was the forum for him to strategically navigate in the fewest strokes possible. For Arnie, it was his stage, and he had the leading role. And he played it to the hilt. This is why, win or lose, Arnie was and always will be The Man to many.

Arnie had/has a homemade swing. Nothing technically correct about it, as he would essentially ‘muscle’ the ball with a low penetrating draw that never seemed to get more than ten feet off the ground. His strategy was pretty much one-dimensional – hit it as hard as you can, go find it, then hit it hard again. Jack, on the other hand, was the quintessential strategist – he would hit whatever off the tee he determined would result in the lowest score on the hole – it could be a driver, 3-wood or 6-iron. Arnie was not so nuanced. It was driver. Every time.

As a result, Arnie did not win as many tournaments as he should have. He won more than 70 PGA tour events but only seven Majors. That total should have easily been double. Specifically, he lost the 1966 U.S. Open when he had a 7-shot lead with 9 holes to play. And he even admits that, at that point in time, his focus was not on winning the tournament but of breaking the all-time U.S. Open scoring record of 272. Jack would have never let that kind of thought enter his mind. If Jack were up 7 on the 10th tee, he would make sure he was still up 7 on the 18th tee. Arnie’s tragedies on the course just endeared himself more to his fans. Eventually it was not a matter of him winning or losing, it was just him being there, swashbuckling his way around the course.

Go Arnie…BABY!!

There’s an anecdote, I believe penned by Dan Jenkins, which most accurately described the Jack versus Arnie dynamic. The Golf Gods turned to Jack and said, ‘You will be the most successful, feared golfer who ever lived’, and then they turned to Arnie and said ‘But they will love you more’. And that is exactly what has happened. Jack is respected. Arnie is adored.

Living in Orlando, Arnie sightings are a common occurrence during the winter months. He has a home in Bay Hill and plays golf every day. Funny isn’t it – his career was playing golf, and he retired…to the golf course. And the folks at Bay Hill say Arnie’s out there every morning slapping balls, trying to find the ‘secret’ that will make him better…at age 82!

So in about an hour I am going to go play golf with a couple of friends. And I think, in celebration of Arnie’s  birthday, I will try to pull off a couple of shots I have no business trying.

Happy Birthday Arnie. Fire at a flag.

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