Thursday, June 26, 2008

Interviewing Arnold Palmer

For the two years I was on his payroll, I was convinced the first time Arnold Palmer was ever going to mention my name was when he looked up in alarm and said, “We have to fire this Chris Rodell!”

My project with ended in October. I’m no longer on the payroll, but when I went into his Latrobe office yesterday to interview him for a magazine article, he greeted me warmly with, “Hello, Chris. Good to see you!”

To me, it’s an absolutely surreal development.

From 2005-2007, it was my job to write all the gushy stories about Palmer for his website. I was the one who wrote about his charitable contributions, his aviation milestones, his historic victories, his chummy relations with Ike, Queen Elizabeth, Ronald Reagan and every other president that’s ever swung a golf club.

I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid. I was the guy who brewed it.

The consumers were the multitude of those aging vets who marched in the campaigns under the banner of Arnie’s Army. To me, that vast, good-hearted sum could be distilled down into the soul of one fine man. My late father.

Paul Rodell served his country as a U.S. Navy chaplain’s assistant. It is almost impossible to conjure a less perilous title -- Army pillow tester? -- for a World War II veteran. That’s why his stories as a foot soldier in Arnie’s Army struck his sons as more stirring than did his days dusting Bibles on behalf of God and Uncle Sam.

Dad got sunburned at Oakmont in ‘62. Stiff new golf shoes blistered his feet on a long march following Palmer at Firestone in ‘75. He caught hell from mom for spilling beer reaching for a Kleenex to mop up sentimental tears as Palmer crossed the Swilcan Burn for the last time in ‘95.

I was raised with a reverence for the man for whom, out of genetic respect, I’ve always referred to as Mr. Palmer.

That reverence was intact during the first fledgling interviews I’d conducted with Palmer. I saw him through my father’s lens and treated my every utterance the way grandmother treats the china. I didn’t dare go off-script, be provocative or ask questions cooked with smart-alec irreverence.

My first formal interview with him was a mutual sleepwalk through redundant questions about his rivalry with Jack Nicklaus. Yawn. Ensuing interviews followed suit with me playing the role of worshipful scribe and Palmer dutifully answering questions he’d answered a million times before while rarely looking up from a daily stack of autograph requests. My father’s golden adorations haunted the room.

That all began to change the day I went to interview him about a mulligan. His dog Mulligan, to be precise. I started with, “So what’s an old rules stickler like you doing with a dog named Mulligan?”

Engaged, he set down his pen and said, “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with a mulligan during a friendly round. It’s a first tee custom here at Latrobe.”

(With Palmer’s sanctifying stamp, it instantly became my first tee custom anywhere around the globe. If anyone objects, I cite Palmer and it’s like I’m invoking Moses among bearded foursomes of rabbinical scholars.)

He lamented that Mulligan was a lousy on-course dog who chased the balls and slobbered them all up. “Probably because at least once a day, I take him out back and hit a tennis ball with my sand wedge off the tee behind my office. He’d chase balls all day. Man, that dog can really fly.”

I was seized by the kind of impetuosity they warn you against in disciplined journalism schools.

“Oh, yeah? I’d like to see that.”

His eyes took on a devilish gleam. “C’mon!”

Two questions into it, the interview was over. We became two kids who’d cut class. We jawed about politics, the war and baseball. He uttered a reflexive profanity about the lowly hometeam when I said I saw he’d gone to a recent Pirate game.

He told me he remembers his first ace with more romantic clarity than his first kiss.

I asked him if he had any suggestions about how I could get a good score the day I was slated to play Oakmont. “I’d suggest you play a different course.”

Now, when I see him I ask him the questions many more accomplished writers would deem too impudent to pose to Palmer. We chat about golf on the moon, our favorite local restaurants and what it’ll mean to America since it’s assured our next president will be, gadzooks, a non-golfer.

By God, we banter.

Many journalists say it’s unwise to ever meet your heroes because you’ll see huge chunks of gold come crashing off them as the all-too-human flaws emerge.

There’s not a day that goes by now that I don’t wish my old man was still around, not to brag about how I get to rub elbows with the legend he idolizes.

Nah, I’d like to introduce him to my friend Arnold. I think he’d really like the guy.

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