On this day, January 7, an American icon unleashed one of his patented final-day charges to win the Los Angeles Open.
The year was 1963, and the scene was the 11th hole at Rancho Park Golf Course. With his good looks, humble beginnings, easy accessibility, and derring-do style of play, Arnold Palmer was a Southern California crowd favorite. But he’d never finished better than 10th in the L.A. Open, and on the last day of the tourney the groans were audible as he hit his ball over the 11th green.
Palmer did not panic, despite finishing the hole with what he later smilingly called “an easy six.” He merely birdied the 12th hole with a 25-foot putt, drove nearly 375 yards to the foot of the green on the 16th, hit a 50-foot chip shot into the hold on the 17th, and closed out with a par for a last-day score of 66. “Arnie’s Army” was delirious.
They still are, really. The man is 83 now, and has branched into many endeavors, writing books, getting congressional Republicans and Democrats to the same events, healing the sick and the lame. I’m not kidding about that, a point we will revisit in a moment.
The game of golf once had a reputation as a pastime for the idle rich. In truth, there were always working-class champions in the sport, but it was the arrival of a young man whose father had been a groundskeeper at Pennsylvania’s Latrobe Country Club – an arrival that coincided with the advent of increased television sports coverage – that helped make golf accessible to the masses.
Legendary sports broadcaster Vin Scully explained it this way: “In a sport that was high society, Arnold Palmer made it ‘High Noon.’” Arnie’s fans included those born to the most modest circumstances, and those to whom a country club was their natural milieu. Cab drivers loved Arnold Palmer; so did presidents.
In 1958, Dwight Eisenhower phoned his friend Clifford Roberts, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, and asked if he could play a round of golf with the winner of that year’s Masters Tournament. Roberts said he’d arrange it. The winner turned out to be Arnold Palmer, who was flattered by the request, and immediately agreed to it.
It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between Ike and “the King.” Eisenhower golfed with Palmer, confided in him, and showed up at his California home to stay a weekend after leaving the presidency. Ike also asked to see Palmer and his wife while he was dying at Walter Reed hospital, and in 1990 Palmer was asked to address a joint session of Congress on the occasion of the Eisenhower centennial.
The 1958 meeting between them also launched something of a presidential custom: Other presidents would ask to play golf with Palmer, including Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton (both during and after his presidency), and George W. Bush.
Palmer once played a few of holes with Ronald Reagan in Palm Springs, and was supposed to play a round with John F. Kennedy there, too, but JFK had to cancel when his bad back flared up. Despite chronic pain, Kennedy had a graceful golf swing. But he wanted to be better, and in 1963, the president had his golf game filmed. Kennedy planned to show it to Palmer at the White House after he returned from a November trip to Dallas.