Wednesday, September 28, 2016

arnie: six under

Sad news for golf fans this week with the death of the legendary Arnold Palmer, the first proper multi-media golf superstar. You'll have no doubt been saturated with overly reverent obituaries in various media outlets, so what you'll be hungry for is a very mildly contrarian HOT TAKE on the whole Palmer phenomenon. And here it is.

So the standard folksy Palmer narrative goes something like this: stuffy tweedy old world of golf is ROCKED by swashbuckling devil-may-care young tearaway who rocks up to courses on his motorbike, drives the ball 600 yards while smoking a fag and wearing leather trousers and totally sticks it to The Man while simultaneously making golf into the multi-gazillion dollar industry that it is today. Now while I'm not denying Palmer's massive influence on golf in popular culture, and I should make it clear I have ABSOLUTELY NO AXE TO GRIND WHATSOEVER with Palmer as man, golfer or legend, I think that the story has acquired a sort of unquestionable mythic status over the years that there might be some value in examining.

Firstly, we all know that golf was basically played by sclerotic 76-year-olds with tweed plus-fours and luxuriant handlebar moustaches until Palmer wheelied in on his Raleigh Chopper with his baseball cap on backwards and showed those doddery old duffers what modern golf was really all about. The trouble with that is that Palmer was a relatively middle-aged 28 when he won his first major championship, the 1958 Masters. Compare that with the winners of the remaining 1958 majors and you find that US Open winner Tommy Bolt was a rickety 42, but Open winner Peter Thomson was 28 and so was USPGA winner Dow Finsterwald. The following year's US Open and Open champions, Billy Casper and Gary Player, were both younger than Palmer at 27 and 23 respectively.

But, but, but: it's not just about the age thing, it's about the swashbuckling aggressive style and the down-to-earth attitude and the casual cardigan-wearing, fag-smoking charisma. And there'd be no argument from me there, except to venture the thought that pre-Palmer there were some golfers who were more aggressive and hit the ball further than others, and furthermore came from relatively humble beginnings, Sam Snead being an obvious example. What made Palmer a superstar and Snead merely a very successful golfer was that Palmer's rise to fame coincided with an explosion in TV ownership and coverage of golf on TV, and the introduction of colour TV in particular. Furthermore Palmer had the good fortune and shrewdness to hook up with fledgling sports promoter Mark McCormack who wrung the best endorsement deals and TV rights out of what was available.

One of the things that makes sportspersons in general loved by millions is fallibility, the sense that it could all go wrong at any minute. People who exhibit that sort of human frailty are generally better-loved than the steely remorseless winning machines, who tend to be loved only in retrospect. So just as Palmer was better-loved than Nicklaus, so it was for Snead and Hogan from an earlier era, and Ballesteros and Faldo and Mickelson and Woods from a later one.

Following on from that thought, one of the interesting things about Palmer's career, particularly for those of us who are far too young to have seen him in his prime and only really remember him from various grey-haired valedictory appearances at major tournaments over the past 30 years or so, is how short his prime was in terms of winning major tournaments. He won his first in 1958 at the age of 28 and his last six years later in 1964 at the age of 34, a major-winning span shorter than that of, say, Andy North, and notably shorter than those of his contemporaries Nicklaus (24 years) and Player (19 years).

After his last win Palmer had 19 top-10 finishes in majors without ever winning another - I haven't done extensive research here but other multiple major winners who had a similarly long "tail" to their careers include Sam Snead (20 top 10s after his last major win at the 1954 Masters) and Tom Watson (19 top 10s after his last major win at the 1983 Open). A couple of other odd Palmer/Watson parallels: Watson was a comparatively youthful 33 when he won his last major (completing a major-winning span of 8 years), and, like Palmer, the only major missing from his CV was the USPGA, in which he lost a play-off to John Mahaffey in 1978. Palmer was second at the USPGA three times, in 1964, 1968 and 1970. Other golfers to famously be a single major short of a career Grand Slam include Lee Trevino and (currently) Rory McIlroy at the Masters and Sam Snead and Phil Mickelson at the US Open.

More importantly, Palmer's death means that there may now never be an appropriate time for Andy and me to pitch our Viz comic strip idea, a concept very similar to Captain Oats: The Polar Explorer Who's Always Exploring His Own Pole. Ours was called Arnold Palmer: The Golfer Who's Always Palming His Arnold and featured a golfer concocting various hilarious ruses to sneak off into the heavy rough or a bunker for a quick one off the wrist. History is vague as to whether this explains Palmer's legendary meltdown in the final stages of the 1966 US Open.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A decent summary although your "standard folksy Arnie narrative" is not one that I particularly recognise.
It wasn't his age (at all?) or his fag-smoking, cardigan-wearing casualness (they ALL looked like that - he fitted right in there) it was just the (original) fact he didn't act all snooty like Hogan (in particular).
I always got the feeling that originally he sort-of wanted to fit in, but was quickly turned off that idea by the unexpected and almost unbelievable rudeness of Hogan (again, in particular).
I thought that was about all really, until McCormack and his TV deals came along and undoubtedly kick-started the whole thing as you rightly say.

Doug MD