SI Vault
Mark H. McCormack
March 20, 1967
The cigarette was almost his trademark and the PGA runs his sport, but Palmer has had epic conflicts with both. Fighting one endangered his golf, and concern with the other nearly changed the pro game
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March 20, 1967

Hidden Battles, Subtle Foes

The cigarette was almost his trademark and the PGA runs his sport, but Palmer has had epic conflicts with both. Fighting one endangered his golf, and concern with the other nearly changed the pro game

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Certain controversies in recent years have struck to the core of American family life: How Do You Build a Bomb Shelter Without the Neighbors Finding Out? Should Annual Haircuts Be Required for Boys? Can a Beagle Enjoy Being Lifted by the Ears? But for the true gut issue, the one that has set more people squinting into more bathroom mirrors more mornings, nothing can approach: To Smoke or Not to Smoke? For Arnold Palmer the problem proved to be three times more complicated than for most people.

By the time the Surgeon General's report came out in January 1964 advancing the coffin-nail concept of cigarettes, Arnold had reached the status of being a kind of angel of the fairways, complete with a halo of L&M smoke. The cigarette was part of the Palmer image. You can see him now, holding it to his lips for a hard drag, flinging it down with that little extra bit of fierceness that he brings to so many gestures—and then reaching for his three-wood to go for the green when any sane man would have layed up short of the water with a four-iron. Yes, the cigarette was part of it.

For as long as I had known Arnold he had been a steady smoker, a two-pack-a-day man. He would never go on a golf course for either a practice round or a competitive round without a pack, and I don't imagine he ever played more than two holes in a row without lighting at least one cigarette. Any decision to stop smoking had to be a big one for him.

One thing that seemed likely to help was that Arnold had never been a contented smoker. He used to make comments to the effect that he almost hated himself for smoking so much, that cigarettes did not taste that good to him, that food did not taste very good and that he felt cigarettes had something of a hold on him. Knowing Arnold, I am sure that one thing which seriously troubled him about his smoking was the thought that he could not control it. His personality does not take kindly to the notion that he, Arnold Palmer, cannot govern something that he himself is doing. He shows this on the golf course all the time. If a shot can be hit—that is, if the physical possibility exists that it can be hit successfully—then Arnold is going to try it. If it made sense to quit smoking, Arnold would just quit smoking. That's all there was to it. But it did not make sense to stop, or at least it did not become an issue in Arnold's mind, until the Surgeon General's report.

The furor that followed the report's release seemed to offer Arnold reason enough to stop smoking. For one thing, he had long had trouble with colds, inflamed ears and sinus difficulties. Cutting out smoking might help those problems, to say nothing of the advantages of not dropping dead immediately of lung cancer, heart disease, etc. So, without ever saying anything about it, Arnold worked up some steam on the subject. Late in January 1964 he was ready for the big decision. He missed the cut at the Crosby, went to San Francisco to have his sinuses drained and ended up betting the doctor—who was a heavy cigar smoker, himself—$500 that he could quit for a year. That night Arnold formally smoked "the last cigarette of my life."

I am a nonsmoker, and the event did not seem momentous to me, one way or the other, at the time. Now I know better. For the next two years the golf world saw a different Arnold Palmer. So did I.

Between that Crosby tournament and the Masters in April I was not with Arnold very much. But the few times I did see him were enough to convince me that he was having a tough time. He looked jumpy over his putts, not the steady Palmer of old. And he confessed as much. "I'm just going through a particular stage," he said then. "Believe me, I'm sleeping better at night, food tastes great and I feel great. I'm going to be strong and steady on my putts in no time."

I believed him, of course.

I also noticed that Arnold was eating more than usual. He did not change his diet, he simply began eating more. Arnold has never been a fancy diner, and not a snacker. A typical meal would be a shrimp cocktail, a tossed salad with Roquefort dressing and a New York-cut steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and sour cream and chives. Then ice cream (parfaits are the thing this year) or pie for dessert. Now, without cigarettes, he would add a bowl of soup, a second baked potato and often another half a steak.

I think that in the first six months after he quit smoking he gained 15 to 20 pounds. And after only three months I, for one, thought he had become a better golfer. This was when he won the 1964 Masters very impressively, shooting 276 and running off from the field by six strokes. It was his fourth Masters title, more than any golfer had ever won, and his victory was so convincing that I could not imagine cigarettes would bother him again.

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