Something that every professional golfer dreams of is one day being able to walk into a golf shop at any course in the world and see a whole rack of clubs with his name engraved on them. It is the best way a golfer has of being reminded that he has accomplished something special in his career. Those new, polished, autographed clubs represent the ultimate satisfaction that comes from having been good enough to win so many tournaments that a manufacturing company wanted to market his name. One must understand this aspect of a pro golfer's hopes—and especially Palmer's—in order to appreciate fully the saga of Arnold Palmer and the Wilson Sporting Goods Company. In a curious way, it was Palmer's association with Wilson, and the strange ending of that association, which probably did more to make him the biggest business success in the history of the sport than anything he ever did with a golf club.
Arnold became officially associated with Wilson almost the minute he turned pro in 1954. Like every other young player, he was pleased at the prospect of going on the tour with his own big golf bag, one that would say, "Arnold Palmer—Wilson Sporting Goods Co." All young pros are proud to become members of a "staff" right away. It looks as if they are important, as if they belong.
The large sporting goods companies actively recruit young players the way highly competitive pro football clubs go after college athletes. This recruiting sometimes begins when the golfers are still amateurs. The best amateurs frequently are catered to by company representatives, receive equipment that cannot be free under the rules of amateur golf—but who knows when payment is made?—and often end up playing with the same line of equipment as pros that they did as amateurs. When the golfers turn pro the companies sign them to contracts, furnish them with clubs, balls, bags, gloves and a little cash, and root for them to become winners, the bigger the better. It is without doubt a fair and equitable system for the average touring pro today. It was a fair system for every pro 20 years ago. But applying the business rules of 20 years ago to a Palmer is not so fair.
Surely, if Palmer had not become the superb player that he did, he would be wonderfully content with Wilson today. He would still be phoning up good old Joe Wolfe, the Wilson player representative, to ask for a new wedge or a different bag—he is tired of the giant white one with the red script and wonders why he can't have a black one with red block letters. Wilson probably would have been the best thing that could have happened to him. As things turned out, Wilson was one of the best things that happened to Palmer, but not in a way that anybody could have guessed.
When I first began representing Arnold on an overall basis—which was in late 1959—one of the things I did was review all of his contracts, at least all of them I could find. The most important of these was the meat-and-potatoes contract, the one with Wilson. At this point Arnold had already won the 1958 Masters, had won 14 other tournaments and had been the PGA's leading money-winner. Yet his Wilson contract was, in effect, the same as it had been in November 1954, when he first signed up.
The royalty rate was, I felt, startlingly low. It was a worldwide contract, meaning Arnold could not make a nickel anywhere without Wilson's approval. It was littered with restrictive clauses. For example, one stipulated that any time Arnold endorsed another product—be it soapsuds, toothpaste or breakfast cereal—Wilson had to be mentioned ("I start off every morning, folks, with a hearty bowl of Crunchy Corn Crackles and my trusty Wilson wedge").
When Arnold signed that three-year contract back in 1954 he did not have a penny, so it is certainly fair to say that he needed Wilson a lot more than Wilson needed him. In the first three years of the contract he got about $5,000 a year from Wilson. This was a significant amount of money to Arnold, since his total winnings in the same period averaged only $20,000 a year. But when the contract came up for renewal in the fall of 1957, Arnold should have been more cautious. On Sept. 25, 1957 he signed a letter with Wilson that, he told me, renewed his contract for another three years.
Now, I do not believe that Arnold Palmer really read any contract that he signed with anybody—ever—and he certainly did not seem too interested in the Wilson subject when I first brought it up with him early in 1960. Since I had been reviewing all of his affairs, and the Wilson contract seemed inequitable to me, I simply said to him one day, '"Arnold, you really ought to familiarize yourself concerning your position with Wilson. It does not seem to be a very good deal the way things stand. I believe we can negotiate a far better contract."
And he said, "Oh, let's talk about it some other time. They are nice people, and I'm sure they are willing to go along with whatever is fair to everybody." Arnold recalled that Fred Bowman (then the president of Wilson) once told him, "Arnold, if at any time you want to get out of this, don't worry about a thing. We want you to know that if you aren't happy, we don't want you with us—and you've got our handshake on that." Besides, he said, several people at Wilson had mentioned to him that the company was making big plans to come out with a more prestigious club for him than the Palmer-autographed model it had been marketing through retail stores.
In the weeks that followed I continued to press the Wilson matter with him. Judging by the papers he had—Arnold's files were, dare I say, incomplete—there were no other obligations to Wilson. Did he have any? "No, I don't think so," said Arnold. "There may have been something about 1963, but whatever it was, it was not important. If there is any problem we'll just talk to them and get it fixed the way we want it. There won't be any trouble. They told me so."