Arnold Palmer: How the king claimed his Open crown – and changed golf forever

The Brian Viner Interview: Legend looks back on his triumph at Royal Birkdale 50 years ago this week that helped propel the game into an international era
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The Independent Online

Fifty years ago this week, having a few hours earlier hoisted the Claret Jug for the first time as Open Champion, Arnold Palmer sat at a dinner table in Southport, celebrating his remarkable victory, by one shot from Dai Rees, at a gale-torn Royal Birkdale. Then a waiter came to tell him there was someone waiting to speak to him on a long-distance call. "It was Walter Hagen calling from Michigan," Palmer recalls. "That pleased the hell out of me."

Hagen had been the first American-born golfer to win the Open, at Royal St George's 39 years earlier. At the Open two years before that, a few miles down the coast at Royal Cinque Ports, "The Haig" famously responded to the news that as a professional he was not permitted to enter the clubhouse by hiring a swanky Pierce-Arrow car, with a chauffeur, which was defiantly parked outside the clubhouse and deployed as his personal dressing-room. Dashing and charismatic, in a way he was the 1920s version of Palmer, or maybe Palmer was the 1960s incarnation of Hagen. "I got to know him very well in the ensuing years," Palmer says. "In fact he asked me if I would be a pallbearer at his funeral, which [in 1969] I did."

Hagen's enduringly relevant advice to professional sportsmen was that they should "be sure to smell the flowers along the way". Palmer, I venture, seems to have done just that. "I hope so," he says. "I got to know him well enough to understand what he was talking about."

We too are speaking at opposite ends of a transatlantic call, an opportunity set up for me by Doc Giffin, Palmer's right-hand man for more years than either of them care to remember. Doc has instructed me to speak loudly, on account of "Mr Palmer's poor hearing". It was also Doc who set up my interview with Palmer in 1998, when I spent a day with the great man at his own Bay Hill Club in Florida. Our interview then was partly conducted on the golf course, during which he missed by a couple of inches what would have been his 18th hole in one, with a swing that had grown into John Updike's description of it as resembling a man wrestling with a snake. These days, he says, he plays golf only a little, but likes to spend time on the range. Does he still hit it straight and long? A chuckle comes down the line from Bay Hill. "I hit it so far I can hear it land".

Half a century ago, by contrast, Palmer hit the ball out of sight as well as earshot. He was 31 and in his physical prime, which he needed to be to cope with the most ferocious weather conditions he had ever experienced. In the second round at Birkdale the gales were strong enough, according to one contemporary account, to send "milk crates through the air like kites". Yet at the height of the storm, with rain lashing the dunes, Palmer, astonishingly, birdied five out of the first six holes. "I don't think I changed my game to adapt to the conditions," he tells me now. "In those days I hit the ball pretty low, which with some exceptions worked very well at Birkdale, as it had the previous year at St Andrews."

The 1960 centenary Open at St Andrews, also in some decidedly trying weather conditions, had been Palmer's first. In the days of Hagen and Bobby Jones, most of the top American players had come to Britain to contest the venerable championship, but as the prize money on their own tour burgeoned, the long journey across the Atlantic was deemed, by many, not to be worth the bother and the expense. It was Palmer who changed all that. "My father always said that if I was going to be a great professional I had to be international, to play around the world," he says. "So that was one of my big goals, as soon as I could afford to do it. The Open at St Andrews was a very attractive way to start, the only thing I regret about it is that Kel Nagle beat me."

Nagle, the gritty Australian, prevailed by a shot from Palmer, who had already won that year's Masters and US Open, and won the hearts of the Scottish crowd with a characteristically buccaneering charge. By the time he completed a final-round 68 his devoted following, "Arnie's Army", had a fully-established British chapter. And the affection was entirely mutual. Palmer, the son of a golf professional, practically raised on the golf course at Latrobe in Pennsylvania, appreciated the crowd's golfing knowledge, and even appreciated the idiosyncrasies of the Old Course that, in the end, helped to deny him victory. "The more I played it the more I could understand it," he says. "And I had a great caddie in Tip Anderson, who knew the course extremely well. Without his help I would have had a lot more trouble than I did, and he was again very important to me at Birkdale. I give Tip Anderson a lot of credit."

It was Anderson's lucky break, though, to land the bag of the most exciting golfer in the world. Palmer's Anderson-assisted win at Birkdale in 1961, compounded by another, more emphatic victory the following year at Troon, duly restored the Open's dwindling prestige. Not that the trip was yet economically viable. "When I finished second at St Andrews my expenses were probably $1,000 more than I made," he says. "At Birkdale I guess I broke even."

The Claret Jug was reward enough in 1961, but not one of his other six major championships was quite as well-earned. Nor did any of them include a shot that lives on in the game's mythology quite like his second shot, in the final round, on what was then the 15th hole and is now the 16th. "I thought I hit a very good tee shot," he recalls, "but the ball kicked to the right, and when I got there it was in deep rough. I took a little time looking at it, then took a six-iron, and I suppose I swung as hard at it as I'd ever swung a golf club in my life: I cut enough hay to feed the cows for a year. The ball came flying out very well. It landed on the front of the green and rolled up about 15 feet from the hole."

It is a prosaic account of a shot now marked by a plaque, although in truth the plaque commemorates more than a great shot, certainly in the view of the golf writer Michael McDonnell, whose prose might have been tinged with purple, but who perhaps recognised better than Palmer the implications of that thunderous strike out of the rough.

"Not even a tornado could have wrenched it free so cleanly," McDonnell wrote. "Some would swear afterwards that the ground shook beneath them as Palmer's club cleaved that bush from his path. Or maybe it was just the gods groaning their surrender, because Palmer was free of them at last and could proceed to his first British Open title." That, suggested McDonnell, made it one of the most significant shots in the development of British golf, because by propelling Palmer towards his first Open, it "set a pattern by which other world-class Americans, who wished to stand comparison, had to follow. After Palmer, they all came."

Before Palmer and after Palmer; there is no hyperbole in thus dividing the history of modern golf, although the deaf old man talking to me on the phone has never been one for bombast. "I can't say that I knew it would happen," he says, when I ask him whether he realised at the time that he was breathing life back into the Open. "I knew that the US players wondered why I would go, and I told them what I told you, that my aim was to be international."

And what has been his view of those American players through the years, and even occasionally now, who would rather stay at home in the Floridian or Californian sun than brave the vagaries of a British summer, would rather spend the week contesting a smaller purse but with a fraction of the expenses? "It bothers me. But I feel like it's their loss. They're shorting themselves."

Palmer never shorted himself, and for that he again credits his father. When he was 15, his father "Deacon" watched him hurl his club in a burst of fury, and told him that if he ever did so again, he would never be allowed over the threshold of the family home. On and off the course his father's influence has always loomed large. Before I last interviewed him, I talked to a fine American sports writer, Tom Callahan, who told me that the key to understanding how most top golfers tick is their relationship with their father. "In sports like American football it's often the mother, mainly because there were no fathers in those neighbourhoods. And with Nick Faldo and Greg Norman it's the mother, but with most of them it's the father. The real patriarchs of the tour were men like Charlie Nicklaus, Harry Player and Deacon Palmer, and if you want to get those guys to blubber, just mention the old man."

Another great golfer mightily influenced by his father, of course, is Tiger Woods. I ask Palmer whether he is one of the diminishing bunch who believe that Woods will bounce back from injury and insult to overtake Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors? "Well, his future is totally up to him and his efforts," he says. "Do I think he might overtake Jack? There is a possibility that he will, but he has to get onto it very quickly." One guy with plenty of time on his hands, if as yet only one major under his belt, is Rory McIlroy. "I'm very pleased to see him doing so well," says Palmer. "He's got a wonderful game, and if he sticks with it, if he practises hard, he will be a superstar."

All of which brings us to Royal St George's. Never before in even Palmer's long lifetime have five majors passed without a single American winner, so does that mean he will be rooting for one of his compatriots this weekend? "No, I don't mind. I've always tried to encourage players to participate on both sides of the ocean, Europeans in the States and Americans in Europe. But I will very definitely be watching. I have a love for that golf course, by the way. I never won the US PGA but I have won the British PGA, and I did it at St George's [in 1975, two years after his last victory on the regular US tour]. It's a real links golf course, a wonderful venue for the Open."

Palmer's Open ambitions these days are for his grandsons. One of them, Sam Saunders, played in last month's US Open, "and one day not too far down the road I hope he will play in the Open Championship. He's making great strides. I also have another grandson, who is only 16 but a very good player." Will he pass on to them the wise words of old Walter Hagen, two of whose four Open victories came at Royal St George's, telling them to find time to stop and smell the flowers? Another distant chuckle. "I will," he says. "I will."

A major player: Arnold Palmer's major wins

Masters 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964

US Open 1960

Open 1961, 1962

All-time major list

Jack Nicklaus 18

Tiger Woods 14

Walter Hagen 11

Gary Player 9

Ben Hogan 9

Tom Watson 8

Arnold Palmer 7

Sam Snead 7

Gene Sarazen 7

Bobby Jones 7

Harry Vardon 7