Country club golf was often a listless affair, but making a living on the professional tour, in the days before television and rich endorsement deals brought big money to the game, was a risky, vagabond existence that attracted, and created, larger-than-life characters of a type rare in professional golf now. Even their jaunty nicknames were evocative of high jinks: Ed "Porky"Oliver, E. J. "Dutch" Harrison, "Slammin"' Sammy Snead. "Everybody was different," remembers Chi Chi Rodriguez, a wisecracking Puerto Rican who became another mainstay of the tour. "Now everybody looks like clones."
The culture was one of engaging with galleries and promoting oneself shamelessly, often with a gimmick. Any kind of angle would do-like Snead or Rodriguez, a fellow might wear a certain type of hat, or adopt the image of a boozer like, for instance, the prewar golfing great Walter Hagen - and there was a great emphasis on showmanship during the rounds.
All so different from today, when most PGA Tour players are as sober as a judge, with the mind of an accountant and the self-regarding manner of a movie star. "In my day, [Ben] Hogan and Snead and Nelson and Arnold, [we] never went to psychologists to tell us not to make eye contact with the people because, if we do, they will want something. I want people to want something from me," adds Rodriguez. "You know, if a man is making five or ten million a year he shouldn't mind if somebody says, `Hey, give me your autograph."'
One of the first friends the Palmers made on tour was one of its biggest personalities: Tommy Bolt, known affectionately as Terrible Tommy or Thunder Bolt, because of his explosive temper. Bolt was a bull of a man ten years Arnie's senior. He had a lantern jaw and a powerful chest, which he stuck out like a soldier on parade. A natural showman, Bolt would march up to galleries before a round and invite them to walk the course with him and, in the days before fairways were roped off, they could do precisely that.
By winning people's interest and building a gallery, Bolt made himself well known, which got him invited to more events and therefore he made more money. In return, fans were entertained by his powerful driving of the ball and displays of ferocious temper that were sometimes spontaneous and possibly calculated to amuse at other times. A wonderful ball striker, Bolt had a less impressive short game and would sometimes fly into a rage when his ball failed to get near enough to the hole.
The stories are legion, mostly involving clubs being tossed about without apparent regard for where they landed or whom they might hit. One time in the second round of the Canadian Open, on the back 9, Bolt hit a 4-iron to the green to see his ball travel only twenty-five feet, falling pathetically short of the target. He was so perturbed by this that he rammed his iron into the damp fairway, which took about nine inches. "And of course he walked off and here was his caddie struggling to pull the golf club out of the earth," recalls his partner in the match, Ward Wettlaufer.
Looking back, Bolt remembers how much fun he and his colleagues had before TV and sponsorship money changed the nature of the professional game, but he notes how difficult it was to make a living. "We had monetary pressures," he says. "Those kids nowadays don't have monetary pressures. They have their pockets stuffed full of money before they get on the tour, so they don't have any real pressure. I think we had the best of it, though. You get big money involved, big business, you have a lot of pressure there. [You] have to win enough money to support all your managers and your psychiatrist and your trainers and [so forth]."
Tournament purses were typically about $10,000 in total and there were great players - some of the greatest, such as Ben Hogan - competing for the little money out there. Palmer struggled at first in such company, borrowing from Winnie's family to stay on the road. It was a hard life. By the time the Palmers reached Florida, seven weeks into the tour, their Ford was almost worn out and living in a trailer had become insufferable. Still, there were compensations: the friendship of characters such as Tommy and his wife, Shirley (until the night the Bolts had a violent fight and threw kitchen knives at each other, which made Arnie and Winnie think they might be safer traveling alone), the freedom of the open road, and the opportunity to visit some of the golf courses Arnie had dreamed about since childhood.
In April 1955, he was thrilled to drive down Magnolia Lane to the Augusta National clubhouse, for instance, meeting Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, both of whom took a liking to the young man from Latrobe, such an agreeable fellow with such a pretty wife. Palmer, who had a Masters invitation by virtue of being U.S. Amateur champion, finished tenth.
After the Masters, the Palmers and the Bolts traveled through the Midwest together and over the border to Toronto, where in August Arnie enjoyed his first professional win, at the Canadian Open. It was a turning point for the fledgling pro and the $2,400 prize money set the Palmers straight. Over the next couple of years, Palmer established himself as one of the most successful players on tour, winning two PGA events in 1956 and four the following year. A major title eluded him for the time being. His best finish in the majors in his first three years was seventh. Still, he was making a living, learning the game, and making friends.
Flawed though the Augusta National is, its championship has for long been one of the greatest events of the golfing year, the defining tournament in so many careers. And it was here that Arnold Palmer was elevated to stardom. Having been on tour for a couple of years, Arnie had built up a following among the general public. But when he arrived at Augusta in April 1958 for the Masters, he found he had an unusually vociferous and numerous new band of supporters. Servicemen from nearby Fort Gordon, enrolled by the club to operate the scoreboards at that year's tournament, had decided Arnie was their man. Whenever he came into view, they cheered loudly and waved placards, bringing the rambunctious flavor of a football game to the hitherto prissy business of Masters golf.
This was such a phenomenon that a headline writer at the Augusta Chronicle coined a name for Palmer's new supporters. They were "Arnie's Army," and the pun stuck, coming to mean all those fans who would follow Palmer during his long career. Thousands of people whooping and yelling and getting so involved in their hero that, when he ducked into a portable toilet to relieve himself during a round, they would stand and stare until he emerged. Not all Arnie's colleagues were pleased by this. "They're not real golf fans," sniped fellow player Frank Beard. Others realized the army was evidence of what Palmer was doing to rouse golf.
Palmer shot 70-73-68 in the first three rounds of the 1958 Masters, then lay in bed Saturday night listening to heavy rain drenching Augusta. The course was so soggy on Sunday morning that there was a suggestion that the final might be postponed. Still, twenty thousand fans came through the gates to watch, and the tournament got under way as scheduled, with Palmer paired with Ken Venturi, a tall, thin Californian who tended to stutter and mangle his syntax when he was under stress. And stress there would be.
At the start of the day, Palmer and Venturi, together with Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins, all seemed to have a shot at the title. Palmer edged a stroke ahead of the pack at Amen Corner, with Venturi in second place. Now was when the Masters was decided - the back 9 holes on Sunday afternoon - and Palmer set about his work with a rare sense of purpose. Always a powerful driver of the ball, he hit such a muscular tee shot at the par-3 12th that his ball embedded itself in the ground between the green and the rear bunker, plugged deep into the wet turf. The crowds, sitting in bleachers on the other side of Rae's Creek, a couple of hundred yards away, then watched what the New York Times correspondent described as a pantomime. They could only guess at what was going on by the animated gestures of the men on the green and the strange actions that followed. When Palmer got to the green, he made it clear he was not happy about the lie of his ball, which was stuck in the wet ground, and told the rules official Arthur Lacey that he did not want to play it as it was. Lacey said he had to. Palmer argued that under wet weather rules he was entitled to remove, clean, and drop his ball before he hit it again. Lacey said that wasn't done at Augusta. Palmer consulted with Venturi, who took the view that he should play the ball, as Lacey said. Arnie told them that he would play two balls and appeal to the rules committee for a final decision. So he dug the plugged ball out of the ground and moved it eighteen inches, then chipped and two-putted for a double-bogey (which would have lost him the lead). To the bemusement of the crowd, who still had no clear idea what was going on, Palmer then dropped a fresh ball where the first had been and, with a chip and a putt, he holed this for par. Venturi was outraged, but the matter had not yet been ruled upon. As the men continued on their round the officials conferred among themselves as to whether what had happened was legal or not and, such was the importance of the decision, no less a personage than Bobby Jones came down from the clubhouse to join them.
At the age of fifty-six, Jones presented a sad sight. The former Grand Slammer was suffering from a crippling illness, syringomyelia, that twisted a once-handsome man into a gnarled stump of a human being. To cope with the pain of the illness and the indignity of his situation, Jones drank heavily and smoked like a demon, and the booze and cigarettes further debilitated him. By 1958 he could barely walk. So when he came down from the clubhouse, he did so in a customized golf buggy that looked like a carnival bumper car. Wearing a sun hat, with his eyes masked behind dark glasses and a cigarette smoldering in one clawed hand, the erstwhile golden boy of golf parked under a tree where a gaggle of tournament officials gathered around him to debate the matter of Palmer and the plugged ball. Meanwhile, Arnie played on, halfthinking he might be ruled against or even disqualified. The pressure seemed to spur him. He powered his way to the green at 13 for an eagle that seemed to rattle Venturi into three-putting at 14. The pair were on 15 when they were called over to Jones's cart. To Palmer's relief, he was not disqualified. Moreover, the lower score would be recorded for the 12th hole. Venturi was so discombobulated by the decision that he promptly three-putted again. Palmer finished his round with a birdie at 18 and then waited inside one of the club buildings while Doug Ford and Fred Hawkins completed their rounds. When both ended on 285, Arnie was declared the winner by a stroke. In the process, he made an enemy of Venturi, who tied for fourth and has never forgiven Palmer for the incident at 12. "Why [should I]? He was wrong," he snorts. "I wasn't arguing for myself. I was arguing for the game of golf [and] the other players. I was arguing for Fred Hawkins and Doug Ford."
Palmer could learn to live with Venturi's resentment, however. With his win at the Masters, and the donning of the green club blazer that went with the silver trophy, life opened up like a magnolia flower. Among other things, Palmer was introduced to President Eisenhower, who became a close and important friend, and whose contribution to the growth of the game, and to the fame of Arnold Palmer, was considerable.
Eisenhower was a very popular president - a hero of World War II, whose homely charm often won over even some of those who disagreed with his politics. Although an inept golfer, he loved the game, and the image of the president hacking away each weekend like a regular guy was endearing. For some, certainly, the image was inappropriate in a time of civil unrest and cold war fears, and it gave his opponents material to use against him. At the 1956 Democratic convention, Tennessee governor Frank Clement accused Eisenhower of "looking down the long green fairways of indifference." But for the most part, golf didn't do Eisenhower any harm in terms of public relations and, in return, the president's patronage lifted the profile of the game. When the president was seen playing with the young champ Arnie Palmer, everybody benefited. "Eisenhower was interested in golf and he was seen a lot on television playing golf, and the fact that I played with him a lot was something that helped contribute to the whole scenario," explains Palmer. The friendship was one of several felicitous elements that came together at the right time to promote the young man from Latrobe as the preeminent star of the game - perhaps beyond his ability and achievement.
Arnie was a gutsy player, a performer on the golf course, but he would never rival the number of wins Sam Snead achieved. Contemporaries such as Billy Casper, whose name has largely faded from the public consciousness, won almost as many tournaments. Jack Nicklaus would win more, and many more of the all-important majors. Most aficionados would say Bobby Jones had an infinitely better swing, and some are disdainful of Palmer's technique. "He's got a terrible swing," reckons Ken Venturi, though he adds that this helped Palmer's popularity, because weekend hackers saw themselves in him. "Everybody said, `Hey, that looks like me!"' notes Venturi. "If he had a very aesthetic swing, he wouldn't have been Arnold Palmer." Aside from the way he struck the ball, Palmer was blessed with an uncommonly likable personality. Almost everybody warmed to him. Men and women. Young and old. From the president to a crusty old character like Clifford Roberts, people were won over by this friendly fellow who genuinely seemed interested in others first. Arnie also reached his prime just as the television age was dawning and, moreover, his personal charm came across on television, which is not always the case with the medium. "Palmer became famous because of television," opines Tommy Bolt. "Snead and Hogan were greater players, actually, than Palmer, [but they] weren't as lucky, because television didn't come [in until later]."
Today, television is taken for granted. When Arnie was growing up in Latrobe, there was no TV. In 1949, when he was a student at Wake Forest, a mere 2.3 percent of American homes had a television, and most of them were in the metropolitan Northeast. Then came the deluge. By 1962, 90 percent of American homes had the box. Television was everywhere and almost anybody on TV became a celebrity - comic, anchorman, game show host, golfer. Though golf was not the networks' first choice when it came to choosing sports events to broadcast - tournaments were long and were played over huge areas of land at the mercy of the elements - some golf was shown on TV, and the player America saw winning was Arnold Palmer.
The Masters had been at the forefront of televised golf since it was first broadcast by CBS in 1956, and by the time Palmer came to defend his title in 1959 it was favorite viewing with those fans who had access to television. Palmer was tied for the lead after the first three rounds of the 1959 championship and seemed set for a satisfying back-to-back win when, on Sunday, again at the 12th, he ran into trouble. This time he sent his ball into Rae's Creek, leading to a calamitous triple-bogey. Maybe the gods were avenging Venturi for what had happened the previous year at this hole. A fellow Pennsylvanian, the quiet, nondrinking, nonsmoking Art Wall Jr., put together a series of birdies that resulted in victory. Still, Palmer had been a wonderful player to watch, for the thirty thousand who crowded into the club and the millions following on television. And the men in the CBS truck knew they were getting good pictures. "The camera fell in love with Arnold hitching up his trousers and flipping his cigarette away and expanding his nostrils," recalls Frank Chirkinian, who took over the CBS producer's chair in 1959. "The camera fell in love with Arnold, and it's still in love with Arnold to this day, [because] he exudes so much charm and charisma. It's infectious."
Frank Chirkinian is another significant minor figure in the story of modern golf. A man of strong personality and innovative ideas, he ran the Masters broadcast for thirty-eight years and in that time introduced many features that are now standard to golf coverage. These included having the inside of the cups painted white so they showed up on TV and using the plus-and-minus scoring system, which made it easier for viewers to see how players were doing in relation to one another (as opposed to giving only cumulative totals). He introduced famous and distinguished commentators to the viewing public, including the English writer Henry Longhurst. It was Chirkinian who brought the Goodyear blimp to golf, with a camera to film the action from above. ("The bloody thing's been going around up there ever since.") The Masters telecast was unsophisticated in its first few years, however. Only the last four holes were shown initially, partly because the limited number of cameras available were all fixed in position, and furthermore they could be no more than a thousand feet from the control truck. The broadcasts were also in black and white, of course, which did not do justice to the setting. So much of the glory of Augusta is in the verdancy of its fairways, the colors of the flowers, the pine trees against a blue sky. Chirkinian was also acutely aware of the inherent problems of golf as television, noting that if one added up the time it took actually to strike the ball in a round of golf - those few seconds of swinging the club - the essential action, if you will, would boil down to about five minutes per player. "So we watch an awful lot of people wandering about or standing still and tossing grass in the air."
Paradoxically, golf was also suited to television. It is usually an uncomfortable and unrewarding experience to attend a major championship in person, because the numbers of people who crush around the greens make it difficult to see the action and, with matches being played all over the course simultaneously, it is difficult to get an idea of the overall picture. Ben Hogan once observed, "I don't know why anyone would go to a golf tournament." Aside from its ridiculous ticketing system, the Masters is better run than most big tournaments. Although as many as two hundred thousand people attend each year (the numbers have grown dramatically since the 1950s), the course is so large and well designed that one can walk about comfortably and, for the most part, get a reasonable view. There is an atmosphere of easiness. People regard each other with an air of mutual appreciation, as if all are attending a smart garden party. The club adds to this atmosphere in subtle ways. It does not charge exorbitant prices for souvenirs and refreshments. The spectator guide, a model of what such guides should be, is distributed for free by cheerful helpers. Lunch is a bargain, though sugary pink lemonade and pappy sandwiches - Pimento Cheese is the classic - are hardly good food. Still, for all this, it is easier to watch the Masters, or any tournament, by staying at home. As John Updike wrote astutely: "No sport is as much improved for the spectator by television as golf."
Bobby Jones had very particular ideas about how he wanted his tournament broadcast, and what should and should not be said by CBS commentators on air. He asked Frank Chirkinian's men not to talk about the prize money for one thing. "Because the money is really not the primary reason that the players are here," explains Chirkinian. "Players are here to win a championship. The championship is symbolized by a trophy and a jacket. These things will be there for the player forever. When the money is all gone, they still have the trophies." To this day, CBS never announces how much the winner receives. When Palmer won his first green jacket in 1958, this was a small matter because his prize was only $11,250. But when the first prize came to exceed $1 million, as it does now, it seems like a conspicuous omission. Jones also frowned on certain phraseology common to sports reporters. In most sports, fans are simply that. Or they are crowds. In golf, they are referred to genteelly as galleries. Even this was too vulgar a term for Jones, who insisted that the people who paid to watch his Masters should be referred to on air as the club's "patrons." Silly. Yet over the years these eccentric details have helped give the tournament a unique flavor, one that has proved enduringly popular. With all the problems and restrictions, TV had a wonderful show in the Masters, and a TV star in Arnold Palmer.
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