Sport Book Review: By golly, could Arnie play

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The Independent Online

Arnold Palmer's story is so blessedly perfect the movie could be called It's a Wonderful Life or Arnie: A Diamond Gent. Palmer is the John Wayne of the fairways, a man so thoroughly decent, honourable, sincere and charming that had he run for president of the United States (he had the chance) he would have won by a landslide.

As it is, Arnie, the son of a head greenkeeper of a small course in a small town in Pennsylvania, was summoned, along with his pal Bob Hope, to a high-powered meeting with President Richard Nixon. Unlike most of his predecessors and successors who played golf with Palmer (particularly Eisenhower), Nixon stuck to politics.

He didn't fly Arnie to his home in San Clemente in a US Marine Helicopter to talk about his swing. What Nixon wanted to know from Arnie was how to end the war in Vietnam. "I guess I wouldn't pussyfoot around," Arnie told Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Vice-President Gerald Ford. "Let's get this thing over as quickly as possible. Why not go for the green?" They laughed, but Palmer wasn't joking.

Palmer's influence and popularity, not just with Arnie's Army, but with the heads of the US Army, is a recurring theme in A Golfer's Life (Century, pounds 16.99). Palmer began playing with a cut-down ladies' club at the age of three; he won his first amateur event in 1946 and after turning professional in 1955 he recorded 92 victories, seven of which were majors. What captured the public imagination, apart from the fact that he was the embodiment of the American dream, is that he played golf like nobody else. There was no safety net. He had one philosophy: attack. It was all or nothing. He looked like a boxer and he hit the ball with a force bordering on grievous bodily harm. Perhaps the only player to come remotely close to his flamboyance is Seve Ballesteros.

Palmer won the Masters four times, the Open twice and the US Open once and it was his daredevil approach - and perhaps also that he was the game's first case of burn-out - that prevented him from matching the record of his great rival Jack Nicklaus who amassed 18 major titles.

Palmer won some by mounting a famous charge on the last day; he lost some by blowing leads like a gambler on speed. The crowds loved him, and so did Mark McCormack, the young Cleveland lawyer who turned his first client into a US corporation. The understanding was that McCormack would work for Palmer and Palmer alone. Although McCormack's IMG grew into the world's biggest management company and Arnie repeatedly threatened to opt out, as Nicklaus did, he has remained loyal.

"I often complained to Mark that we were in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, namely me." Palmer admits that mixing business and sport affected his game but although there were some bad deals they were outnumbered by the good. "As for Mark, say what you will about the man but the plain fact is that working together we both found success beyond our wildest dreams."

Palmer, who recently recovered from prostate cancer, still plays in the Masters (he missed the cut on Friday) and designs courses all over the world. He bought Latrobe, the club his father, "Pap", helped to build and which has become a family shrine.

There is a lot of pap in this book - as a kid Palmer once stole a tube of glue and it bothers him to this day and the nearest he comes to swearing is to say by golly - but it's not too good to be true. Arnie is not only one of the greatest but the warmest.