VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Arnold Palmer is, without a doubt, the enduring face of golf, still called by many the most loved man who still is playing. He continues to play, partially, for that one reason - he enjoys the people, and they still adore him.
His competitive days are becoming fewer and fewer, but the fire still burns. He hates it when he shoots 80 and is working hard to get his game in shape. He works out with a trainer, exercises, swims and practices his golf.
But reality long ago camped on his doorstep, and he knows hoping and doing are two different things.
"I love the game and I still play it with a great passion," Palmer said recently. "For some reason, the people, the galleries, are still very supportive. That's nice. It means the world to me. I guess I need that."
The love for the game and his stature within it allows Palmer the chance to say what he feels, without regard for what the popular answer or the vogue response might be. When pressed at a recent charity outing, he talked freely about golf technology as it relates to balls, clubs, putters and more. And there isn't much he favors when it comes to bigger, better and longer.
Although he has cut back on his public appearances lately, his latest one, a 100-person private affair in Virginia Beach, raised more than $25,000 for Hope Haven. Palmer pilots his $20 million Citation X the 40-minutes of fly-time from his Pennsylvania home, and he is content to play a nine-hole exhibition. As he has done so many times before, Palmer walks among the people, allowing them to brush with greatness at every step, for better than two hours.
He seems like the guy next door, making small talk with little girls, old ladies on porches, waving to construction workers, posing for pictures between holes and entertaining anyone who has the gumption to walk up to him. Humbly aware of his impact on the golf world, he jokes and carries on with one an all. Hit, then walk and talk is a motto his lives daily.
Although he doesn't play like he used to, carding more double bogeys (2) and bogeys (1) than birdies (0) on this hot and muggy day, he still is in tune with the equipment changes and what they are doing to the game he saved.
Suffice it to say that the King takes the high road on most issues facing the game today.
"I have not played well as of late," says the 73-year-old Palmer, the 1960 U.S. Open champion and 1981 Senior Open champion. "But I have a new Calloway ball (Tour Black) that I hit the other day and it went 20 yards farther."
Palmer says the golf balls go too far as it is, but as long as they are legal, he realizes he would be foolish not to use them. The equipment, the ball, and the technology have increased to the point that Palmer can almost do the same things he once did when the "Big Three" - Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player - won 13 of 24 majors in the early 1960s, including seven straight Masters.
That's a shame, he says.
"There's enough of us screaming - Nicklaus, Tiger (Woods), me," Palmer says as he wipes a drop of sweat from his nose. "They need to slow the ball down, somehow. It's the only way we're going to be able to prevent from making courses that are ridiculous."
Palmer's solution is to take 20-30 percent of the distance off of the golf ball. His logic is that a big hitter who launches 350-yard drives will be hit "where it hurts" with a loss of 30 percent of his distance. To the 250-yard driver, it won't have nearly as much of an impact.
While the ball might be the place to start the fix for the game he loves so much, Palmer also says he's in agreement with Woods' recent comments regarding "hot" or illegal drivers. They believe it's not necessarily the individual players, but the club companies and manufacturers who are to blame.
"I think what you are finding now is that these kids are stronger, they are bigger, and with this new equipment, they just bomb it," Woods was quoted as saying in USA Today about the next generation of pros. "But what you end up finding is that every one of us comes back once we turn pro because you realize there's more of a penalty for missing fairways. You need to keep the ball in play. Hitting the ball all-out all the time isn't going to get the job done."
With a smooth buffing wheel, Palmer says he can make the titanium face on his driver a little thinner and push the spring-like effect up from a legal .830 Coefficient of Restitution (COR) to an illegal .900. COR is directly related to the speed of a golf ball as it rebounds from a club face. Generally, a club with higher COR will generate greater ball velocity, equaling more distance.
"Before there ever was anything called COR, I had a Calloway Titanium driver that I didn't like because of the lines on the front," said Palmer, his yellow shirt soaked through with perspiration. "I buffed it some to get rid of the lines, and I discovered that I hit the ball farther.
"Now this is before they ever tested for these things, before COR. I told a friend of mine, who was a USGA member, and he looked into it. Well, I was hitting the ball farther because I had thinned the face, and I didn't know it. Next thing I know, they started testing."
Palmer is a constant tinkerer when it comes to making and testing clubs in his garage (can you imagine a garage sale at his house?), but when it comes to belly putters, he draws the line. While he has some, and he has tinkered with them, he has never used them in a competitive situation.
"I think they are unfair" he says as he looks to the sky to see two war planes from nearby Oceana Naval station pass overhead. Palmer is particularly interested in all overhead flights, having spent three years in the service before turning pro at age 25.
"Many years ago, I went to the base commander's conference at Langley (Air Force base in nearby Hampton, Va.) and when I was finished with the golf exhibition, he asked what I'd like for my time. I said I wanted two F-15s, and he said 'OK.'
"So my pilot (they traveled with two in those days) and I each took one up, and 'went to the range' for a little war games."
Palmer, true to his nature of living for the competition, "shot" down his opponent in the war game simulation.
His pilot's license has served him well over the years. In a couple of days, he will fly to Washington D.C. to get the attention of senators and legislators to get support and funding for a new 1st Tee Program. Then he'll fly to Kildare and the K-Club to do some tune-up work and maintenance in preparation for the Ryder Cup, then to Prestwick and finally to Turnberry for the British Open.
"It's like former President Clinton once told me when I was at the White House," Palmer said. "It's not necessarily the best job in the world, but the perks are nice."
For the 100 citizens lucky enough to be in Palmer's company for this charity event, the honor of being with Palmer was the perk of a lifetime.
Born: September 10, 1929
Children: Amy (1958), Peggy (1956)
College: Wake Forest University
Turned pro: 1954
Special Interests: aviation, golf clubs
Points of Interest:
1961 Vardon Trophy
1962 Vardon Trophy
1964 Vardon Trophy
1967 Vardon Trophy
World Golf Hall of Fame
1961 Ryder Cup
1967 Ryder Cup
1963 Ryder Cup
1965 Ryder Cup
1971 Ryder Cup
1973 Ryder Cup
1963 Ryder Cup Captain
1975 Ryder Cup Captain
1996 The Presidents Cup Captain
July 7, 2003
Steve Rocca has 16 years of journalism experience, including stints at the Virginian-Pilot, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Palm Beach Post and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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