Had we not lost him in ’16, tomorrow would have been Arnold Palmer’s 92nd birthday. It has me wondering if had he lived I might have finally been able to beat him golfing. Probably not.
Feeling sweet nostalgia, I went through some of my old interviews with him from his Latrobe offices and am happy to share some of the more lively exchanges right here. Questions include what it was like to ride an elephant down Main Street in Sri Lanka, who’d win a wrestling match between him and Clint Eastwood, and when was the last time he helped build a snowman.
As you can surmise, when I was privileged with the opportunity to talk to the great Arnold Palmer, golf was far from my mind.
CR: Are you ever sorry you didn’t give that paint salesman thing in 1954 more of a chance?
AP: No. There was some thought I’d need to persevere with that occupation. You never know and I needed to have a back up plan and that’s just what that was until I won the U.S. Amateur that same year. Was I good paint salesman? Obviously not! If I’d been really good, I’d still be there selling paint, wouldn’t you think? I’m thinking I chose the right path for me.
CR: What’s your idea these days of a really great night and does it differ from one say 30 years ago?
AP: Well, I think a great evening is a couple of drinks, a very pleasant dinner with friends or loved ones, and then a few more drinks and then early to bed. It’s been the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago only with maybe a couple more drinks and a little later evening. It’s very similar.
CR: Didn’t your 1976 ‘round the world flight record include an elephant ride?
AP: It did. It was in Sri Lanka. We stopped there to refuel. They met me at the plane with the elephant and I rode into town for the golf awards and then back. He was a gentle giant. Friendly.
CR: So on a race to set an around-the-world aviation record you still found a little time to do some elephant riding?
AP: Yes, it was a busy 55-minutes in Sri Lanka!
CR: Does Arnold Palmer have a bucket list?
AP: I’ve done a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do. Flying was a big part of that. I don’t fly myself anymore, but I’m still very active with flying and work with aviation organizations as part of the American way of life. There are a couple of places I’ve thought about visiting with Kit, my wife. One is Alaska. I’d like to spend some time with her there. Having played golf my whole life, I’ve been to most of the nice warm places on earth at one time or another. I haven’t been to the French Riviera and that’s a place I’d like to visit. But I’ve traveled so much that I really enjoy just being home in Latrobe and home in Orlando at Bay Hill. I really am looking forward to spending whatever time I have left in those two places.
CR: You may have golfed more than any man alive. Most people are delighted to have you play their courses, but can you remember the last time you had to pay for a round?
AP: I’ve never really paid for playing golf anywhere except one time I went to golf with some friends at Bandon Dunes. I can’t forget the guy there saying, “That will be $100, Mr. Palmer.” I guess that’s become sort of a slogan there. But I paid $100! I won’t again! The course was very interesting and very tough.
CR: When was the last time you flew commercial?
AP: I flew from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, a couple of years ago and the comfort on that flight was outstanding.
CR: I’m guessing you didn’t have the middle seat, did you?
AP: No! I had a bed! It was Qantas. My wife and I had our own bed. It was very nice.
CR: If you were to go on a private jet golf trip for a week around the globe, which courses would you like to see included in the schedule?
AP: Once again, Troon is one of my favorite golf courses. I like St. Andrews for a change from time to time. Wentworth is a course I enjoy. Domestically, there’s Augusta, Oakmont, Winged Foot, all of the greats. On the Pacific I’m going to try and play Cypress Point when I’m out there next week. Not so much in the Far East. I won the Australian Open at the Royal Queensland Golf Club in Brisbane on the Gold Coast. That was very nice. But I think I’d stick with the tried and true.
CR: Would you ever go on “Dancing With the Stars?”
AP: No. I’m not a dancer. That’s not for me.
CR: A lot of people talk about Tiger returning from this back surgery and trying to beat Jack’s record of 18 majors. You know, don’t you, that there are a lot of people who would like to see you come back from your back troubles and win the next 12 majors in a row. What do you think of that?
AP: I like it! That would be a lot of fun for me.
CR: I understand you were on the verge of having back surgery, but your experts decided you’d be better suited for therapy. How’s your back doing?
AP: I am undergoing physical therapy. I have a therapist that comes three days a week and she was here today for an hour. It’s very rigorous. She really works me out.
CR: Wanna wrestle?
AP: I’m game! You know, I used to be a pretty fair wrestler. I think she has me in shape to go again. Let’s just see how the rest of the interview goes.
CR: How important was your 1954 U.S. Amateur win to your overall career?
AP: Its importance can’t be overstated. It set the standard for my whole career and it’s the victory that convinced me I could play and play well enough to succeed on tour. I have book out about it and I called that book, ‘The Turning Point.’ That’s how much that victory meant to me.
CR: Let’s get the most important question out of the way first. You’re leaving Latrobe just about as the weather’s about to turn nasty. You’re flying to Orlando to spend the winter in the warm sunshine. The question is: Will you take me with you?
AP: Sure! You’re welcome to tag along!
CR: When was the last time you spent a whole winter in Latrobe?
AP: Oh, gee, it’s been so long. It’s been since clear back before I turned professional. I’m thinking the last one had to be about 1947. I’d winter in Florida because I couldn’t golf here.
CR: Do you ever worry that lack of exposure to Pennsylvania’s biting winter — the snow, the ice — is going to make you soft?
AP: Ha! No, I don’t worry about that one bit.
CR: When you started winning frequently on the tour and particularly the majors, you became a celebrity. As your star began to rise, were you treated any differently by locals when you went home?
AP: No, I was always just Arnie. It’s one of the reasons I never left. I still knew the same great guys who played football, or wrestled. I’d see the same people in the stores and restaurants. They were the people with whom I grew up. They always made me feel like I’d always be just one of the boys.
CR: And was there a point, a particular year or after a particular victory, perhaps, at which things shifted for you in terms of how you were treated wherever you went?
AP: None that I ever noticed. I think it’s always because I never stopped treating people any different than before I started winning. It’s the way I was raised.
CR: We have a story about cowboys in the summer Kingdom… When you were a kid, did you ever want to be a cowboy?
AP: In fact, I’ve always been a cowboy. Wanting to be a cowboy is something you never outgrow. And I always wear the white hat! I always loved playing cowboys and Indians.
CR: Did you watch many Western movies growing up? Any favorites or favorite Western actors?
AP: “The Lone Ranger” was one of my favorites as a little boy. I love every John Wayne movies. John Wayne was always great.
CR: Ever meet The Duke?
AP: No, I never did.
CR: How about his sometime co-star, Jimmy Stewart from nearby Indiana, Pennsylvania?
AP: Jimmy and I did meet. We talked about Indiana and western Pennsylvania. And aviation, too. He was a pilot who flew in the service. I’m still a big Clint Eastwood fan, too. We had dinner last Saturday night. We talked about his old show, ‘Rawhide.’ He’s the same age as I am. About the same condition, too.
CR: What would happen if the two of you wrestled?
AP: Oh, I’d kick his ass. He has all those seconds do that stuff for him. I still do all my own stunts.
CR: Last question: When was the last time you helped build a snowman?
AP: Oh, it’s been a while, all right. I’ll tell you what: I’ll be here for a week around Christmas. If it snows come on by and we can all get together and make a really big one. That’d be fun!
Many of these anecdotes appear in my book, "Arnold Palmer: Homespun Stories of The King," (Triumph Books); signed copies of this and other books available through www.ChrisRodell.com.