There was a baseball player who lived in our neighborhood named Wayne Granger, a local boy from one of the hill towns in western Massachusetts. Wayne had a decent run in the bigs; he set a record for saves in 1970 while pitching for the Reds (he also had the misfortune to give up a grand slam to the Orioles’ Dave McNally in that year’s World Series, simultaneously putting them both in the record books).
In 1971, I saw that there were a huge number of cars on our street, all converging on the Granger household. I asked my father what was going on there; he shrugged and replied, “I heard Arnold Palmer played an exhibition at Tekoa, and that there was a party at Granger’s.”
Now this was a time when I was not really playing any golf, but paid pretty close attention to it. And Arnie was definitely a sports hero of mine.
“Well, how come we’re not there? Didn’t Rick [Wayne’s brother, who worked for my father at the paper mill] tell you about it?”
My father replied irritably, “Yes he did, but I’m not interested in that sort of thing.”
I was genuinely pissed, which was kind of a general state of mind I was in whenever I conversed with my father [I won’t get into “daddy issue’s” here, I used to pay someone to do that]. I later learned that Arnie was indeed at Granger’s, and that several of my friends had stopped by and gotten his autograph. I was crushed. The following might explain why.
Arnie was not the best player of the 20th century, but with all due respect to the Golden Bear, the Tiger, and whatever other wildlife-themed golfer who has been around, he was the most important and likely the most popular. He was the right man at the right time for golf. He cut, as they say, a very dashing figure on the course. He’d puff on a cigarette while pondering a shot, flick it away and hitch his trousers when he had made up his mind for his shot (that typically didn’t take very long), and let loose. He celebrated victory the way that most of us would love to – tossing his visor in the air, shaking hands with everyone in sight, and flashing his winning smile. His mannerisms reflected a blue-collar mentality, which brought many from the thriving middle class of that time into the game. All of which translated beautifully to television.
He won in dramatic fashion – the final round 65 at Cherry Hill to secure the 1960 US Open after an equally compelling win at The Masters that year – and crashed and burned spectacularly – he blew a 7 shot lead to Billy Casper in the 1966 US Open, losing to him the following day in an 18 hole playoff. In terms of daring and risk-taking, Arnie makes Phil Mickelson look like The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper.
And when he crossed the pond to participate in the 1960 Open Championship (he finished one shot back of Kel Nagel, narrowly missing copping the first three majors of that season), he won over the Scots with his daring style, and went on to win it the next two years – and in doing so, he single handedly revived interest in the Open, prompting other American golfers to play in it.
And when Jack Nicklaus came a-calling, Arnie realized that in addition to a worthy rival (one that would eventually leave him in the dust, competitively), the Bear (or “Ohio Fats,” as he was derisively called) could be a partner of sorts. He readily engaged Nicklaus and Gary Player to produce exhibitions (the Tour not being the year round extravaganza it is today) like “Big 3 Golf” and “Challenge Golf,” which increased interest in the game and put dollars in their (and other tour players’ pockets).
Arnie was smooth, and he was shrewd. Teaming up with his agent, Mark McCormack, he branded himself everywhere, appeared all over television [not only for golf, but on talk and variety shows – it didn’t hurt that this was the heyday of golf celebs Bing Crosby and Bob Hope], and, in one of life’s weird twists, made Hertz commercials with OJ Simpson – weird in that on the day of the famed White Bronco Chase, Palmer was playing his final ever US Open round at Oakmont.
While Arnie may have lost the golf battle with Jack, he won the financial war. For a mind-boggling 30 years, he was the top grossing athlete in the world. Think about that for a minute.
Today Arnie turned 85 years old. The only time he’s really seen these days is at the Tour event he hosts at Bay Hill in Florida, or as part of the ceremonial group that tees off at The Masters each year. He still has the same, awkward looking closed-to-closed swing (the late golf instructor, Harvey Pennick, in advising against such a swing, wrote “I know Arnold Palmer uses a closed-to-closed action. You are not Arnold Palmer.”), and when he’s healthy, he still looks for a game each day.
And I still haven’t met him. Damn.