Editor’s note: The great, ground-breaking Hall of Fame golfer, Arnold Palmer (1929-2016), known as The King to the millions of fans who formed Arnie’s Army, died Sunday evening in Pittsburgh at the age of 87. There have been a handful of more accomplished golfers over the years, but no other professional athlete of his generation or later has had a deeper relationship with his fans, or blazed the trail for golfers and other pro athletes to become business-savvy brands as well as players.
Arnold Palmer’s representatives arranged to lease Old York Road Country Club in Spring House, Pa. in the mid-1960s for a few days as a scenic backdrop for a Robert Bruce golfwear photo shoot that was to appear in a special edition of Sports Illustrated. The King was arguably the most admired pro athlete on the planet and the first and greatest to become a global marketing brand.
His seven major victories were behind him, but he won four more times in 1967 and missed winning the 1968 PGA Championship and an eighth major right here in San Antonio at Pecan Valley Golf Club. The purses were different back then. Palmer earned $184,065 in 1967, one of his most lucrative seasons in a career that spanned more than 50 years from 1949-2004. With annual inflation averaging 4.11% over that time period that one season equates to $1,323,281 in 2016 dollars.
That would be good enough for 81st place on the 2016 PGA Tour, placing Palmer between Harold Varner III and Brian Harman, not exactly household names. For all the credit, deservedly so, that Tiger Woods receives for elevating pro tournament purses and inspiring new generations of golfers, Palmer was the player who made golf big business and individual top golfers their own brands. He probably became a billionaire or close to it, thanks to his many sponsorships, golf course design business, and various investments. For decades, Palmer piloted his own jet.
It gives nothing away here early in my personal homage to Palmer to share this:
“What was your biggest thrill as a pilot, Arnold?” I asked him as we walked Oak Hills Country Club during the 2003 Pro-Am round of the AT&T Tournament. Palmer had told me his jet was waiting at San Antonio International Airport, ready to go when he was ready to go. The occasion was Palmer’s farewell to San Antonio, where he had won the Texas Open three years in a row from 1960-62, the last two at Oak Hills after the tournament moved there.
“My greatest experience without a doubt was when Boeing invited me to fly and land a 747,” Palmer said, his gaze suddenly growing distant and his voice trailing off. “If it hadn’t been for golf, I would have made an excellent and very happy commercial airline pilot.”
In a remembrance published this week, the New York Times called Palmer a pioneering pitchman, an honorary title made possible by his eventual business partner, a Don Draper-like marketing genius named Mark McCormack, He harnessed Palmer’s magnetic personality as a fast-charging competitor and humble everyman driven relentlessly forward to victory or agonizing defeat by the huge galleries of fans that became known as Arnie’s Army.
Old York Road Country Club, Spring House, Pa.
That’s more than I knew as teenage caddy who held the coveted job of pro shop “club boy” at Old York Road Country Club in the mid-1960s. But I knew an authentic hero when I saw one. Word spread quickly that Palmer was coming to Old York Road, a heavily-wooded, turn-of-the-century golf course designed by the legendary A.W. Tillinghast.
Many decades later, life would bring me and my family to San Antonio, and eventually, membership at Oak Hills Country Club, a heavily-wooded, early 20th century golf course also designed by Tillinghast. And when that membership ended years later I began to play the city’s most storied public course, Brackenridge Golf Club, home to the original Texas Open, an 18-hole layout designed, yes, by Tillinghast.
Back to Palmer and Old York Road. Palmer and his marketing team and Sports Illustrated magazine were about to make history by publishing a special edition devoted entirely to golf. Every advertisement would feature Palmer playing golf (at Old York Road) wearing his signature line of Robert Bruce golf wear. You can still see the familiar Palmer designs for sale on eBay or this Palmer page on Pinterest. A staged gallery of country club members would be dressed in complimentary Palmer golf wear, along with the three players and four caddies in Palmer’s exhibition foursome.
That sort of revenue-generating special issue is cliché now that print publishing is struggling to stay profitable, but it was revolutionary back then.
Excitement built in the days ahead of Palmer’s arrival as members were outfitted by an advance wardrobe team, and the course was closed and manicured for the event. Cameramen working for Sports Illustrated set up towers to capture the most scenic shots.
My life as a hard-working but troubled teenager took a big step forward when John Lynam, the club pro, instructed me to greet Palmer at the Fort Washington Sheraton Hotel the next day where he was expected to arrive after driving to the suburban Philadelphia area from his home in Latrobe, Pa.
My job was to make sure Palmer got checked in, and then guide him to Old York Road where he would be greeted by his well-dressed gallery for the exhibition and magazine shoot. I knew every inch of the course and the greens, Lynam said, so I would be on Arnie’s bag. Lynam, the club president, and the men’s club champion would round out the foursome.
I didn’t sleep that night, and arrived hours early on my bike to the hotel. As I patrolled the parking lot, two attractive young women in miniskirts arrived and joined me. I was a naive teenager, the product of a broken family, someone who knew his station and kept his head down when it made sense. I was caught by surprise when the young women asked me if I was hoping to get Mr. Palmer’s autograph.
I puffed up and told the two women I was not an autograph hunter. I was there to meet Mr. Palmer and escort him to Old York Road. Had they heard of it?
“Oh, we’re here to meet him, too, but we aren’t golfers,” they informed me, giggling. There must be some mistake, I said, repeating that I was sent to meet Mr. Palmer. They merely smiled back at me as it slowly dawned on me they had other intentions.
Palmer arrived a bit late and in a hurry. He ignored the girls and put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me close as we walked to the registration desk. I did not have an active father figure in my life then or earlier while growing up. A two-minute walk and encouraging words from Palmer, who asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up might not mean much to the average man 50 years later, but I’ll never forget that moment.
My self-esteem only grew as we climbed into his big black Lincoln and drove the four or five miles to the long, tree-lined entrance to Old York Road Country Club, talking the whole way. A large gallery of members dressed in Palmer’s signature golf gear were lined up by Old York Road’s historic red barn, which had stood for more than a century.
The normally reserved members broke into shouts and applause as Arnie parked and emerged with a big smile and a wave. Palmer loved his fans as much as they loved him.
I came out of the passenger seat and decided to wave, too. I was dressed head-to-toe in new golf wear, my first new ensemble of shirt and trousers. All of the members knew me as the club boy who kept their clubs clean and properly stored, their persimmon woods polished, and their bags of practice balls washed.
Their Christmas tips would underwrite my first year of college. Some of the men and women were the first successful adult role models in my life. I studied them, the way they carried themselves, the way they spoke, the way they handled money, the way they treated working people like me and others there who spent their entire lives in service to more educated, wealthier people.
My father, often absent from my life physically and always absent emotionally while I was growing up, stood off to the side, holding his treasured Polaroid camera, wearing my backup Robert Bruce golf shirt I had given him. He worshipped Palmer and it was his first time at Old York Road, perhaps his first time at a country club. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, it was the first time I brought my father somewhere he otherwise would have never experienced.
Within the hour we were standing on the first tee. Palmer was keeping up a running, often flirtatious dialogue with the gallery. He raised the possibility of a sporting bet with his fellow players, all of whom looked like they suddenly had a case of stage fright. As the crowd laughed and egged Palmer on, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
John Velox, the fast-talking, South Philly caddy master who lived one step away from the streets, gave me a rough shove and told me there had a been a change. I was now caddying for the club champion, a man named William Finnegan, a high roller who liked to gamble, tipped well, and always took time to make me feel like more than a summer worker. But he was no Arnold Palmer.
Skip, a cocky, chain-smoking college student half a foot taller than me and one of the caddy master’s gin rummy and horse track buddies, had managed to muscle his way into the group as Palmer’s caddy. I’m sure cash traded hands.
The golfers teed their balls as I stood there, helpless and unable to do anything without making a scene, which I innately knew would not be smart. I blinked back tears as I heard Finnegan tell the gallery and Palmer that he’d play him even up, no strokes, $100 a hole, an astonishingly foolish act of hubris. I swallowed hard as my anticipated tip disappeared in what would prove to be a friendly but firm, “no-offense-friend” spanking of Finnegan at the hands of Palmer.
Palmer nearly drove the first green from the tips, the back tees, which had never been done at Old York Road by member or guest. He swung with a ferocity and focus I had never witnessed. Judging from the sounds coming from the gallery, neither had the members. Palmer was still lean and he had forearms like dock ropes. We had seen him in action countless times on television, but in person it was different, the way a hockey match or a bullfight is different.
Palmer lit a cigarette as he made his way up the fairway, cameras clicking away. It was still okay for role models to smoke in public in those days, even on camera. I didn’t light up, but I was a teen smoker and thought he looked cool.
Finnegan, the club champion, found himself back on his heels after a single shot. His drive sat some 50 yards or more behind Palmer’s drive, and he wanted to hit his clubs farther than he could, trying to prove something. He dumped an errant mid-iron into a greenside trap, blamed it on me, and walked away. He was well on his way to carding a string of nervous bogies that would cost him more than few of the $100 bills he kept rolled up under a rubber band.
Once, perhaps a year earlier, Finnegan had called me out of the pro shop and upstairs to the men’s locker room and the 19th hole bar. With a card game forming, he instructed me to take his keys and unlock his Lincoln or Cadillac and bring back the cash roll stuffed under the driver’s seat. I took off running, and upon my return, he instructed me to stand there in the bar in front of the other card players while he counted his roll, more than $2,200 in all, more cash than I had ever seen or held.
I didn’t know it, but I was being tested.
“Here,” Finnegan said, speaking through his cigar, as he peeled off the first $50 bill I would call my own. “You can make more money being honest than you can stealing or cheating people.”
By the second hole, it was clear this would not be a regular round of golf. Palmer was putting on an exhibition, inviting ladies to come closer and betting them he could hit the par-four second green in regulation by using his putter out of the fairway for his second shot. A pond guarded the last 50 yards between the fairway and the elevated green.
Palmer proceeded to drop a few extra balls and then punch his putter with his telltale attack swing. One after another, he skipped balls across the water and up on to the green as members gasped and applauded and photographers documented it all. Looking back, I realize Palmer was intentionally giving the photographer shots with gallery members in the near background, cheering, holding their hands to their faces, looks of amazement and disbelief on their faces.
This wasn’t The King’s first exhibition.
The par-three third hole required a tee shot over water to a small peninsula green guarded on three sides by the pond. A few members took the bait as Palmer bet them he could reach the green with his sand wedge and also catch his tee shot in his hand at the same time. What he said didn’t make any sense.
As the others in the foursome grew self-conscious over the seven and eight irons they were holding, Palmer proceeded to tee up his ball and then squatted down to carefully balance a second ball atop the teed ball.
Palmer stood up, took aim, then swung his wedge, sending the bottom ball arcing perfectly up and toward the pin while his eyes turned skyward and locked on the top ball, which rose straight up 10 or 15 feet and fell into the palm of his waiting hand. More gasps and applause.
I went home and practiced that same stunt in my backyard and later on the club’s driving range until I perfected it. It’s probably a trick found in every good golfer’s bag today, but I did it a few months ago at Top Golf to the amusement of our group, almost beaning myself in the process.
Palmer knew something fishy had happened on the first tee and made it a point to talk to me throughout the round. His own caddy, Skip, grew sullen as Palmer failed to engage him. Palmer told members on one tee that I had brought my two older, good-looking sisters to the hotel as part of the greeting party, which provoked laughs from the men that I didn’t quite understand. He made sure everyone knew I was going to be a newspaper man some day, and to watch what they said around me.
Palmer posed with his arm around me coming off the eighth green while my father steadied his Polaroid. He signed the scorecard I kept that day for my own edification, and kindly turned me down when I offered to guide him back to the Sheraton. He patiently signed autographs for every member who approached him that day.
I’ve spent too many hours on eBay and other sites looking for that obscure special advertising issue of Sports Illustrated and, sadly, have never identified its publication date or located a copy.
Flash forward about 35 years to October 2003 when it was announced Palmer would make Oak Hills Country Club and the AT&T Championship one of two tour stops on the Champions Tour that year and his farewell to Texas. I was the editor of the Express-News and in a Sunday column told the abbreviated version of how I came to meet Palmer many years earlier, yet was cheated out of working as his caddy that day.
Well-known San Antonio golf pro Buddy Cook read the column and sent it to the PGA Tour, which posted it on its home page. The email from around the world from Arnie’s Army began arriving in waves like I had never experienced.
“Can you still carry a bag?” Cook half-jokingly asked me in a phone call.
“If Arnie can still drive the ball, I can still carry his bag,” I replied, remembering my teenage years of “carrying doubles” twice a day on weekends, servicing four golfers over a total of 36 holes. A good day yielded $40, counting tips, for my savings account.
“It’s confirmed: You’re going to caddy for Arnie in the Pro-Am,” Cook told me one day later. I was a 50-year-old suddenly going on 16 again. I’m not sure my wife Monika, or our sons Nicolas or Alexander fully grasped my boyish excitement. I knew Oak Hills as a middling, occasional golfer, but now I started stepping it off in my sleep like a pro caddy.
Palmer had won the first two Texas Open tournaments played at Oak Hills in 1961 and 1962, but stayed away from San Antonio as the years passed. Big galleries were expected.
The male members of Oak Hills were instructed, as always, to temporarily empty their lockers for the pros. Monika gave me a nice bag of pecans from our yard to place in Palmer’s locker as a welcome gift. I was fitted for my caddy’s vest with the Palmer name across the front and back, and instructed to meet him on the driving range.
Palmer was down to a three-quarter swing by then. With a Callaway club representative and his regular caddy watching, he sent drive after drive out to the 250-yard mark. Of course, the pros hit real golf balls warming up, not the dead balls we amateurs find at the range.
Palmer took to the first tee, reveled in the announcer’s long, laudatory introduction, and then as he teed his ball, he paused and posed a question to the gallery:
“Does anyone know my caddy Bob Rivard? I’m not sure what to make of this, but he and his wife, Monika, left a bag of unshelled pecans in my locker this morning. Unshelled, folks! What am I going to do with those?”
Boos and histrionic laughs filled the first tee and practice putting green as Palmer went into full entertainment mode and I found myself playing his good-natured foil.
It was like that the entire round. He lamented the state of his declining game after missed shots, then spoke of the glory of golf after a good swing. My job was to club him with yardage distances, to ward off autograph seekers during the round, and keep up a steady handout of his corporate logo ball markers to gallery members. The plastic, rainbow-colored umbrellas were seized by members like gold bars.
Palmer swore he recognized gallery members from decades earlier and would point them out individually.
“Go give her a marker and tell her I said it’s for her and not her husband,” Palmer quipped.
All along the way, old timers approached Palmer and shared stories of yesteryear when they had followed him, including his second place finish to Julius Boros in the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley Gold Club, the one major that eluded Palmer in his career, a loss that came the year after my teenage introduction.
Palmer had time for every adult and every kid as we slowly made our way around Oak Hills. As we approached the par-three 18th green, I had the good sense from watching lots of golf’s big moments on television to slow my step and allow Palmer to climb the green all alone. He doffed his hat and bowed his head slightly as the audience packed into the shaded risers came to their feet. The cheers were deafening.
Palmer gestured to me to join him. As he marked his ball amid the din of shouts and applause, he asked how we would exit the course. I explained that we had an uphill walk to the clubhouse and, beyond that, the parking lot. I could signal for a cart, I suggested.
“How many people are waiting?” Palmer asked.
“Well, Arnold, there are hundreds,” I replied. He had told me at the start to absolutely not call him Mr. Palmer.
“Then that’s how many autographs we will sign after we putt out,” he said, turning back to the green. He finished with a par, and then stayed until every autograph had been signed.
Palmer had told me during the round that the PGA Championship he lost in San Antonio was a loss that still hurt. He told me it was not public information yet, but come Spring 2004 he would make his final and 50th appearance at the Masters at Augusta Country Club.
I wish we could publish the excellent photos taken by Express-News photographer Tom Reel of my time with Palmer that day at Oak Hills, but a request to reprint the 13-year-old images for a fee was denied. Express-News Photo Editor Luis Rios said Executive Editor Mike Leary prohibited the use of any Express-News photos on the Rivard Report.
“Tom Reel and I were told by Mike Leary that we could not license photos from the 2003 AT&T Championship with Arnold Palmer to the Rivard Report,” Rios wrote in an email Monday.
“Why?” I asked.
“As competitive as the industry has gotten, we rarely share photos with local media,” Rios wrote. “It will not surprise you that no local media shares photos or screen grabs with us.”
That response surprised me, given that the Express-News once requested the use of Rivard Report photos and, after quickly obtaining our permission, proceeded to publish them without a Rivard Report credit or any payment. A second time, one of the newspaper’s editors lifted one of our photos without permission and published it. We asked the newspaper to publish a credit and pay a modest reprint fee or remove it. The editors removed it without apology or acknowledgement.
What would Arnie say?
Monika left a bag of shelled pecans in Palmer’s locker the next morning for the first round of the AT&T Championship. I followed Palmer as a spectator, but he did not make the cut. Weeks later, I wrote a letter thanking him for the opportunity, so many years later, to carry his bag and spend so much time with him inside the ropes. I let it be known I had left my schedule open for the 2004 Masters in the event he was able to invite me to Augusta as part of his private army.
I doubt that letter ever reached Palmer’s eyes, and I never heard from him again. It didn’t matter. Already, Arnold Palmer had given me so much.
Top image: A Tom Reel photograph of Arnold Palmer and caddy Robert Rivard that hangs in the men’s locker room of Oak Hills Country Club. Photo by Scott Ball.