"I'll tell you one thing," the writer said. "Palmer gets up at 2:00 every morning and without fail he goes to the icebox and drinks a Coca-Cola. Absolutely without fail. At least, that's the story they tell. There was this one time long ago when some of the guys were supposed to have barricaded his room after he'd gone to sleep—they slid a bureau up against the door, and an armchair or two, and then they waited to see what would happen at 2 a.m. When the time came, they heard Palmer groan in there and stir around, and they heard the turn of the door handle behind the bureau and the creak of the door being tried. Then there was a crash and the scrape of the furniture they'd set up being moved back, the whole mass of it pushed aside as Palmer put his shoulder to the door—y'know, he's so damn strong, a bull—and he came through with hardly a glance at the golfers sitting around on his way to the kitchen refrigerator. They said he looked half-asleep, a somnambulist, and the next morning he had forgotten it. He vaguely remembered the noise of the furniture scraping back across the floor. He said, 'What were you guys doing in there last night—throwing chairs? Hell of a racket!' "
The writer concluded: "The fact is that the hardest thing is to get Palmer aside long enough to ask him something, much less to think up a worthwhile question. He gets bothered all the time, so he's wary."
"Yes, I've heard that," I said.
Frank Gifford, the football player, had told me about a dinner at P.J. Clarke's restaurant in New York, a big pleasant hangout which many athletes frequent. He was sitting with Palmer, and behind them, at another table, a man kept leaning across and touching Palmer on the shoulder, pushing a question or two, perhaps a comment, trying to insinuate himself into their circle. Gifford was more annoyed, he said, than Palmer. It was a farewell dinner for Palmer, who was leaving for a trip abroad—Cairo, or some such place—early the next morning. The man's efforts seemed impertinent. Then, to Gifford's astonishment, he realized the man was trying to hustle Palmer. He was trying to goad him into a match. "I'd seen the guy around before," Gifford said. "I knew he was a damn good golfer—a country-club player—but it was hard to believe: I mean, he was telling Palmer that he didn't think that there was that much difference between a crack amateur and a pro, and he was willing to prove it."
He wanted to tee off the next morning: he offered Palmer his choice of golf courses in the vicinity; the only concession he wanted was a handicap of one stroke a side. The two would play $500 Nassau—that is to say, a bet of $500 a side and $500 more on the final outcome of the match. Palmer was very polite in refusing. He half-turned in his chair and said that he was flying out for the Middle East early the next morning; it really wasn't something he could fit in.
The amateur put on a smug expression and he hitched his chair around to turn back to the people at his table. His voice rose as he explained how the great golfer, the pro-fess-ion-al, had backed down. He was pretty exuberant. He clicked his fingers and ordered a beer.
Suddenly Palmer swung his chair around. He tapped the man on the shoulder. He said: "All right. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll postpone my trip to Cairo, We'll tee off at Winged Foot at 9:00 tomorrow morning. O.K.?" The man was staring at him, astonished. "Except I'm not giving you one stroke a side; I'm giving you two strokes. And we're not playing a $500 Nassau. We'll play a $5,000 Nassau."
Gifford said you could hear the man gulp. He looked down at the tabletop, and he never said another word. Palmer looked at him a bit, and then swung back to his table, disgusted. Palmer really would have stayed, Gifford felt. He wasn't trying to scare the man off by increasing the size of the bet; he had just been trying to make it worth his own while to postpone the trip. As a competitor he was interested in the challenge, perhaps even in the man who had made it. But then he had swung around and leaned half out of his chair and confronted the challenger, so that the man was suddenly looking into that familiar face with the eyes full blast on him, and that had folded the amateur up; he had gulped and felt foolish.
"That's it," I said to the sportswriter—thinking back on the Gifford story. "The guy's so big in his sport that you have to crank up all this nerve to face him, even if you just want to ask him a couple of questions...."
"Well, good luck," he said.