Like virtually everyone who interacted with Arnold Palmer, I came away feeling like royalty after each of my meetings with the King. I remember interviewing him for a column I was writing before his appearance at the 2005 Rochester Press-Radio Club Children’s Charities dinner, and he inquired about my golf game. When I told him I didn’t play, that I felt more comfortable gripping a baseball bat than a nine-iron, he seemed stunned, then chuckled. “You’re probably better off because golf can drive you nuts,” he said. “Believe me, I speak from experience.”
On the night of the Press-Radio Club banquet, the commander of “Arnie’s Army” didn’t disappoint his battalion of adoring fans. Palmer was gracious with everyone, shaking hands, telling people he was pleased to meet them, inquiring about their golf games and lives. His charisma—and humility—were on full display. As a people person and golfing ambassador, he was the real deal. In fact, few athletes and celebrities I’ve encountered have been on par with this son of a Latrobe, Pa., greenskeeper.
There certainly were greater golfers in history than Palmer, who died Sunday at age 87. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan come quickly to mind. But there was none more important. Arnie’s role in popularizing a heretofore elitist sport and taking it to the masses can’t be understated. Thanks to him, golf became a game not only for blue bloods, but the blue collar as well. He took the starch out of a stuffed-shirt pastime.
Before Palmer hitched up his britches, squinted into the sun and began his wild swing as golf’s first television star in the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were roughly 6,000 golf courses in the United States, and most of them were private. Today, there’s nearly four times that number and nearly three-quarters of them are public. Arnie lit the fuse for that explosion.
There was an everyman appeal to his game. We loved the way he always went for broke. Sometimes it resulted in memorable charges during the final rounds. Sometimes it resulted in catastrophe. “He turned golf into a heavyweight fight,” the late, great sports columnist Jim Murray wrote. “He didn’t play a course, he slugged with it. Toe-to-toe.” Duffers could relate to Arnie’s swing, which was anything but textbook fluid. “He slashed at the ball like a guy beating a carpet,” was Murray’s priceless description.
Palmer played several major tournaments at Oak Hill Country Club’s famed East Course, and never won, though he came heartbreakingly close at the 1984 U.S. Senior Open. With huge galleries exhorting him, he entered the last round with a one-stroke lead. But disaster struck on the 15th hole when he whiffed on a one-inch putt and took a double-bogey, clearing the way for Miller Barber to claim a two-stroke victory.
One of the crowning moments of Palmer’s Hall of Fame career occurred on Jan. 23, 1961, when he received the prestigious Hickok Belt Award as the top professional athlete at Rochester’s Powers Hotel. He had experienced a breakthrough year in 1960, winning the Masters and U.S. Open, along with six other tournaments. His victories in the two majors were defining moments. At the Open in Denver, he shot a final-round 65 to erase a seven-stroke deficit and win the title. He made a similar charge at Augusta National, scoring birdies on the final two holes to edge Ken Venturi for the victory. Palmer told the banquet crowd in Rochester that winning the Hickok topped the thrill of putting on the green jacket presented to the Masters champion.
One of Palmer’s boyhood heroes was Walter Hagen, the legendary golfer from Rochester whose flamboyant style helped popularize golf during the Roarin’ Twenties. The two men wound up becoming friends, and Palmer served as a pallbearer when “The Haig” died in 1969. Hagen, who ranks third all-time with 11 major victories, was famous for joking with galleries and making fans feel as if they were a part of the action. “I would like to think I took a page or two from his book in that regard,” Palmer told me. “I read an awful lot about Walter’s golf prowess and his influence on the public. He sort of laid the foundation for me.”
Thanks to a recently published book by Webster native Barry S. Martin, a forgotten hoops star is being remembered. In “Bob Davies: A Basketball Legend,” we’re reminded of the enormous role the former Rochester Royals star played in the formative years of professional basketball. Credited with introducing the behind-the-back dribble and popularizing the practice of guards driving to the basket, Davies helped Seton Hall University win 42 consecutive games and led the Royals to the NBA championship in 1951. Sports Illustrated called him one of the eight most influential players in the first century of college basketball.
But Martin came away from his exhaustive research and interviews even more impressed with Davies the person. “Many of us have been disappointed with the way so many great athletes have comported themselves,” Martin said. “But from what I discovered, Davies was a true role model and a true hero.”
As a boy in Harrisburg, Pa., Davies helped support his family by working numerous odd jobs before and after school after his father lost his job during the Great Depression. During World War II, Davies left college and joined the Navy, where he was one of just a handful of NBA players to see combat duty as the commander of a minesweeper and submarine chaser. In 1946, Davies refused to kowtow to Jim Crow laws and roomed on the road with Dolly King, pro basketball’s African-American player.
“He was just such a decent man, who led such a decent life,” Martin said. “He was very modest, and, unfortunately, modesty doesn’t always pay.”
Martin will be signing copies of his book this weekend at three area Barnes & Noble stores: Greece (Friday, 7 p.m.); Pittsford (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.) and Webster (Sunday, 2 p.m.)
Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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