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The folklore of a genuine folk hero; BOOK OF THE WEEK

Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey by Thomas Hauser (HarperCollins, pounds 14)
Jack Nicklaus is the greatest golfer the world has seen or is ever likely to see but Arnie...he's something else. Nicklaus won 18 majors, Palmer seven but it makes no difference. Before he became the Golden Bear, Nicklaus was Ohio Fats, Palmer the pin-up from Pennsylvania who not only lived the American Dream but marketed it.

When Palmer was in his prime in the late Fifties, early Sixties he happened to be the right man in the right place at the right time. In 1950 only eight per cent of American families had a television set; by 1960 the figure had risen to 88 per cent and that was the year Palmer had thrilling victories in the Masters and US Open and gave the ailing Open at St Andrews the kiss of life by his sheer presence.

He hit the ball with an aggression bordering on violence, was a terrific putter, attacked courses to the point of recklessness and looked as if he could have understudied for Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. With the help of television, and the conscription of Arnie's Army of supporters, he transformed golf from an elitist Ivy League pastime to a sport for the regular guy. And Palmer, a one-time paint salesman, was nothing if not a regular guy.

The man who applied the gloss was Mark McCormack. Before shaking hands with the Cleveland attorney, Palmer was getting $500 and all the sauce he needed for lending his name to Heinz ketchup. That was in 1959. By 1962, when McCormack was licensing Arnold Palmer as a brand name and selling it to companies, Arnie's off-course income was $500,000.

The handshaking has never stopped and Arnie, described by his wife Winnie as "very frugal", is now said to be worth around $50m. But is he happy? Very, as it happens, but certain defeats still hurt and he should have won more majors. One reason that he did not, of course, was the arrival of Nicklaus; another is that he stopped smoking and his putting went to pot. "I urged Arnie to give up smoking," Dwight D Eisenhower said. "He took my advice and, by golly, he hasn't been the same since." The real reason for Palmer's decline in the mid-Sixties can probably be found in the coincidence of the rise of Palmer Inc and the boom of his off-course business. He was signing almost as many deals as he was autographs.

If you are looking for a warts and all portrait of Palmer this isn't it. The odd racial hint is dropped with one observer asking when have you ever seen Arnie in the company of a black person other than with O J Simpson in a Hertz commercial? But the money Palmer lost in bad business deals with IMG is hardly touched upon.

"I think he wants to come back in his next life as John Wayne," Winnie says. "It's very important to him that the good guys win at the end of a movie."

Tim Glover