Longtime Friends Share Stories Of The King
Everybody has one. If you had the pleasure and privilege of knowing Arnold Palmer, even if you only met him a couple of times, you have a story. Some have enough anecdotes to fill door-stopper-sized books. Others have that one nugget that they have shared so many times their families roll their eyes when Arnie’s name comes up.
As the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill kicks off for the third time without him, our team at Global Golf Post+ approached a cross-section of Palmer’s friends with one request: Please tell us one of your favorite Arnold Palmer stories.
Here is what we heard:
Paul Azinger, NBC lead golf analyst who will be in the 18th tower at Bay Hill this week:
“I met Arnold at Bay Hill when I was a 19-year-old college student. He kept up with the decent players from the area, although I wasn’t that good back then. But he treated me like an old friend from the first time I met him.
“I was also lucky enough to play with him several times. In 1987, my first Masters, I scheduled a practice round with him. It was an incredible experience having him out there talking about the golf course and when to play certain shots. We got to the 13th and I hit my tee shot in the left center of the fairway. It was a good lie but also a good distance from the center of the green. I asked Arnold whether or not he would always go for the green from where we were standing. He looked at the shot while I looked at him. Then he turned and head, smiled and never said a word. I had my answer.”
Peter Jacobsen, NBC golf analyst and longtime Palmer friend:
“My favorite time at Bay Hill was when Arnold played his last Arnold Palmer Invitational and the tour let him pick who he played with. He picked Jay Haas and me.
“For Arnold to pick Jay Haas and me to play his final (event) was a huge, huge honor. Ironically enough when Arnold missed the cut, well, I made the cut but played so poorly that on Sunday that I paired off in a single, first off.
“So, I went to Arnold and said I don’t want to play alone. Do you have someone I could play with, a committee chairman or somebody? He said how about my 13-year-old grandson Sam (Saunders)?
“I said, ‘That’s a heck of an idea.’ So Sam and I went out first and who followed us down the middle of the fairway every hole, kibitzing with us? Sam’s grandfather, Arnold. So the last Arnold Palmer Invitational where he competed, I spent Thursday, Friday and Sunday with Arnold.
“I will never forget that. I will never forget him asking to play with me and then being able to hang with him on Sunday watching his grandson, beaming with pride watching him as a 13-year-old just bombed it and played some great golf.”
Jim Nantz, longtime CBS golf host:
Nantz also serves as the network’s lead play-by-play announcer for the NFL. And while football was generally his focus during the fall, he also had golf on his mind, especially when Palmer was alive and the NFL took Nantz to Pittsburgh.
“I always hoped for a Steelers home game in September or October because I knew Arnold was still going to be in Latrobe, which was nearby, and I would have a chance to go out and see him.”
During one of those early-season Steelers games Nantz drove to Palmer’s home with Phil Simms, the former New York Giants quarterback who worked with Nantz as the lead NFL football analyst, and CBS producer Lance Barrow.
“Phil had never met Arnold before and was excited finally to be able to do so. First, we went to Arnold’s office, and he showed us his memorabilia and then the workshop where he has all his golf clubs. Then he suggested we go to his house to have a cocktail and say hello to his wife, Kit. We did that, and when it was time to go, he walked us to the front door of his house, which is set on top of a hill, and out the door.
“There’s no gate in front of his driveway, and people can just drive up and knock on the door if they want to. I asked Arnold if that ever happened, and he smiled and said it did, all the time. I wondered what he did when complete strangers just randomly showed up. He said, ‘Well, I shake their hand, sign an autograph and take a picture, and then they go on their way.’ The way he handled those situations was a testament to the type of man he was, and how much he was a man of the people.
“So, Arnold tells that story, and Phil and Lance and I say goodbye and climb into our car. I start backing down to the road when Phil said we should look at the top of the driveway. And there was Arnold, who had not only walked us to the door and also to the car but was now there at the top of the hill waving goodbye, as if to say, ‘Thanks for coming by, guys. See you later.’
“It was such a wonderful touch. But that was Arnold.”
Sean McManus, CBS Sports chairman:
“Some years ago, I received an invitation to play in an outing at the National Golf Links of America on Long Island. There were about a dozen of us, and we gathered at the club for dinner the night before.
“Arnold Palmer was part of the group, and after our meal he and Jim Nantz engaged in a sort of fireside chat, with Jim asking Arnold questions and getting him to tell stories. It was a terrific session. Just as we were breaking up, our host told me that Arnold and I were going to be partners the following day. Needless to say, I did not sleep a wink that night. He was my boyhood hero, and I did not know how I was going to handle playing with him.
“I was still pretty nervous when I stepped onto the first tee the next morning. But after shaking my hand and saying good morning to me and the two other players in the foursome, Arnold reached into his pocket and pulled out three of those umbrella pins of his and handed one to each of us. I put mine on the sweater vest I was wearing , and I remember how comfortable that gesture made me feel. It was Arnold’s way of welcoming us.
“We had a very nice round. It turns out, Arnold and I won our match. We took $5 from our playing partners and I got Arnold to sign my $5 bill. I still have that bill and I still have the vest I wore that day and the umbrella pin. I wear it on occasion, too. When I do, it reminds me of what a kind gentleman Arnold was.”
Tim Neher, former television executive and key figure in the launch of Golf Channel:
“One of the places where Arnold and I played a lot was at the Latrobe Country Club. The first time was in 1994 or 1995. When we came to the 12th, which is a lovely par-4 with a stream running across the fairway, Arnold told me that I would need 255 yards to carry that. ‘You may want to play it short, but I am going to hit it over,’ he said. Then he did just that, and after his shot rolled to a stop, he turned to me and added, ‘When I can’t carry that stream any more, I am going to stop playing golf.’
“Fast forward some 15 years, by which point we had played Latrobe maybe another 12 or 13 times together. Of course, he was getting a little older, and a little shorter, and then it got to the point where his tee shots were going into the stream at No. 12, and then falling short. But he kept on trying, and he did not give up playing until much, much later.
“Over the years, we played in a member-guest at The Tradition in Palm Springs. The first time, we ended up in a nine-team playoff that started on the 10th hole. By the time we got to 17, there were three teams left, and we were one of them.
“Now, Arnold designed The Tradition, and the 17th was a 295-yard, downhill par-4 that he designed specifically for himself because he wanted to be able to drive it. So, here we are, playing alternate shot, with Arnold on the tee and as our opponents get ready to hit, Arnold reaches into his bag and grabs an iron. I can see that he is doing that because, being Arnold, he wants to do what he thinks is best for the team. But I also know he wants to hit the driver.
“Standing next to me, he looks over once, then twice and then a third time, at which point I tell him, ‘Go get your driver.’ He went right back to his bag, and once he grabbed his driver, he had this look on his face like a 7-year-old at Christmas. Again, I smiled, thinking of how gracious he was to be thinking first of his partner, and also how he always believed in himself on the golf course and would invariably go for it.”
Arnold Palmer during the 1960 Masters (Photo: Getty Images, Augusta National)
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