Thursday, May 24, 2012

Yesterday, Arnold Palmer watched me golf

I came within a two-foot putt of committing what would be one of the greatest golf sins in the game’s history. I almost asked Arnold Palmer if he’d leave Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club because Arnold Palmer was bugging me.
This would be like asking the Pope to vacate the Vatican for being too Catholic.
But, man, he was bugging me.
I was invited by Doc Giffin, Palmer’s assistant of nearly 50 years, to join him and two other golf writers to play a swanky member-guest function at the historic home to one of golf’s greatest legends.
It’s a real treat.
Both Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have more championships, but golf has no more enduring and endearing star than Palmer. He is beloved around the world and revered here in Latrobe.
And why not?
An expert pilot, he’s set around-the-world aviation records, is best buddies with several presidents and has golfed with all but two of them since Ike. Bill Clinton says one of the great perks of office is getting to play golf with Arnold Palmer. Kirk Douglas said in 1970 that no one alive -- not Sinatra, John Wayne or Ronald Reagan -- has more charisma than Palmer. In 2007, GQ named this 82-year-old gent one of the most stylish American men from the past 50 years, and last year one of the 25 coolest athletes of all time.
And through years of chummy interviews, he’s somehow become my buddy. In fact, he was gracious enough to provide the gushy foreword for my new book, “Use All The Crayons! The Colorful Guide to Simple Human Happiness.”
I told him I’m convinced it’ll be his most successful endorsement ever which, if true, means my book is destined to become more profitable than either Cadillac or Rolex.
And wouldn’t that be a big win for the little guy!
It’s no exaggeration to say I still tingle every time I see him.
What’s odd is I now realize the only place I don’t want to see the legend is in his native habitat, the golf course.
Actually, reverse that: I don’t want him seeing me there.
But that was the situation over three holes yesterday afternoon.
Prior to spying Palmer spying us, I’d been playing well. I’d parred the first and second holes and was just off the back edge of the third hole, a tricky par 5, in 3.
That’s when I saw him glowing in the trees. He was seated in a golf cart -- and he truly does glow. I don’t know whether it comes from wealth, karmic beneficence, or some kind of pricey sunscreen he uses, but there he was shimmering in his golf cart. It was perfectly cool.
Of course, I thought of my late father, the man who bestowed upon his sons a reverence for all things Palmer.
It was a flawless western Pennsylvania afternoon. And there I was playing at Latrobe Country Club with Arnold Palmer, a man I call a friend, about to watch me golf.
So I about crapped my pants. 
In fact, that for the next three holes became my dominant swing thought. Good golfers will address the ball and say to themselves, “Now, keep your head down, use a smooth back swing, and be sure to follow through.”
I just kept thinking over and over, “Just don’t crap your pants.”
I managed to hit the first shot, a dainty little wedge, to about seven feet. I was left with a tricky downhill putt.
Having executed the wedge shot without embarrassing myself, I felt a surge of confidence now that I held the putter, even as I recognized I was on one of the club’s most dangerous greens.
I hit the putt on a nice line, but it grazed the cup and sped past about 3 feet.

“That’s good!” Palmer yelled cheerfully.
So now in addition to thoughts about loose bowels, another herd of questions come thundering across my brain.
Is he being sarcastic? Should I pick up? Is he testing my golf integrity? What if he says, “You know, if I’d have known you putt like that, I never would have endorsed your stupid book.”
Confused, I bent down to make the comeback putt. Missed it by a foot.
Now I’m coming apart. My promising round is ruined by the observing presence of one of the greatest golfers to ever live.
I made the next putt, but it had taken me three strokes to negotiate seven measly feet.
And now I begin to wonder how long he’s going to be hanging around watching us. What if he starts to heckle?
He follows us for parts of the next two holes. He’s joking, encouraging and gracious.
He sees me hit six more shots, about four of them decent, and then he simply vanishes. He either drove off without me watching or else uses some kind of time-space transportation beam available only to him. We don’t see him again the rest of the round.
I’m relieved when he’s gone, but I sense a lost opportunity. It will now haunt me that I was unable to confidently sink a long putt, scorch a perfect drive or cozy a wedge shot snug to the pin for him to see.
Arnold Palmer watched me golf and I failed to do something remarkable.
On the other hand, I guess in a way I sort of did.
At least I somehow managed to keep from crapping myself.

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