A Golfer's Life
by Arnold Palmer, with James Dodson
Ballantine Books, $26.95
It may come as a surprise to readers of A Golfer's Life that Arnie wasn't crazy about Ben Hogan. "He ruled golf like an icy monarch," Palmer writes. He resented Hogan for never calling him by name, only "fella." Before the Masters in 1958, Palmer played a practice round with a group that included Hogan. Palmer was exhausted after what he remembers as a "bone-wearying" midnight drive to Augusta, and he played miserably. In the locker room later he overheard Hogan ask another player, "How the hell did Palmer get an invitation to the Masters?" Palmer showed him how a few days later, winning his first of four green jackets.
The book contains dozens of such tidbits. Palmer admits being embarrassed when he is referred to as the King. Ambassador, he feels, is more like it. He recalls earning his first money from golf at age seven, when a Mrs. Fitz at Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, where his father was the head pro, offered him a nickel "to hit my ball over that ditch." When he was 16, his father, Deacon, whom he called Pap and whom he adored, had too much to drink one evening and started berating Palmer's mother, Doris. When Palmer interceded, Pap lifted him off the ground by his shirt and slammed him into a stovepipe. But it was his father who gave him his most important golf lesson. "Hit the ball hard," Pap told Arnie early on. "Go find the ball, boy, and hit it hard again."
In 1951 Palmer, grieving over the death of his best friend—Wake Forest teammate Bud Worsham, in a car crash—left college during his senior year and enlisted in the Coast Guard. To his regret he never finished his degree. After his service he got a job selling paint in Cleveland. He would call on clients in the morning and then join his boss for lunch at the club, where the two would play golf.
Winning the U.S. Amateur in 1954, writes Palmer, "was the turning point in my life." Shortly afterward he met Winifred Walzer, married her, turned pro and joined the PGA Tour. At first the Palmers pulled a small trailer behind their car, as many touring pros of that era did. Palmer earned his first pro victory at the 1955 Canadian Open and over the next five years became not only the best golfer in the world but also arguably the nation's most exciting athlete. He hooked up with a lawyer named Mark McCormack, whose astute management of the young golfer led to the creation of Arnold Palmer Enterprises and made Palmer a multimillionaire. It is therefore surprising to read, late in the book, that "Mark and I have grown somewhat apart" over the last 20 years.
In and around these anecdotes are, of course, the familiar: the U.S. Open charge at Cherry Hills in '60, visits with Ike, the '62 Open playoff with Jack Nicklaus, the back-to-back British Open wins, Bay Hill and, alas, prostate cancer. But there could hardly be a Palmer book without these things, and taken as a whole, A Golfer's Life easily makes the cut.