“Why do I want to win the Masters?” a young Arnie asks. “Why would I want to breathe? I want to stay alive. I want to stay alive in golf.”
Palmer’s enduring legacy has been immortalized in a three-night documentary film by the Golf Channel simply called Arnie. Part 1 will debut at 10 p.m. next Sunday after the Masters Tournament.
The niche network that Palmer co-founded two decades ago didn’t have to look very far for the perfect subject to launch its most ambitious project. This is the kind of work the Golf Channel should be investing in – historical features that can compare to the 30 for 30 series on ESPN.
“What we set out to do was really tell the definitive story on the life and legacy of Mr. Palmer,” said Mike McCarley, the president of the network.
It’s been 50 years since Palmer won his last major at the 1964 Masters, yet the King remains as relevant as ever in the modern world. He was the right man at the right time when sports began showing up on television. His charisma and style were magnetic and launched golf into the modern era and himself as a popular icon.
But his life story is much more than a string of birdies and bogeys. From his humble beginnings in Latrobe, Pa., to his lingering status as golf’s most beloved elder statesman, Palmer is a riveting subject that can elevate your pulse rate in one moment and move you to tears in others.
“I had to get the Kleenex out when I was watching it,” Palmer admitted of the brief screenings he has seen. “It brought me back to my world of so many years ago. I really can’t even think about it. It made me think and get pretty emotional.”
It’s impossible not to choke up when Palmer tearfully leaves the press room after his last U.S. Open appearance at Oakmont in 1994 to a standing ovation from a press corps that wanted to give something back to him after his years of giving them everything he had. Or his heartbreaking loss in college of best friend Bud Worsham, who died in a car accident and sent a mourning Palmer to the Coast Guard. Or his whirlwind relationship and elopement with the former Winnie Walzer, who stood beside him for 40 years before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1998.
Of course the films are filled with footage of Palmer’s greatest successes and failures – the combination of which made him such a compelling figure. You can never get enough of seeing Palmer hitch his pants up and make his inimitable slashing swing as he charged his way into golfing lore.
It’s a myth that there was no running at Augusta, as you see the crowds scrambling helter skelter all over the fairways, swarming around Palmer as he made his charge to beat Ken Venturi for his second green jacket in 1960. He cuts a unique image, puffing a cigarette on live television as he made his birdie-birdie finish.
You will wince at his epic double-bogey collapse in 1961 to hand the green jacket to Gary Player – a series of gruesome shots from a perfect position in the fairway that even Player could barely stand to watch. Palmer recovered in 1962 with unlikely birdies at 16 and 17 to rally from two behind Player and Dow Finsterwald – eventually winning a three-way playoff the next day.
“One time in my life I’d like to win the Masters with a little cushion,” Palmer said.
In 1964 he did just that, walking triumphantly among the scrambling patrons up the 18th fairway for a six-shot win that nobody could have fathomed would be his last major victory at age 34.
“Of course you never think you’re going to be at your last stop, but it was great,” Palmer said 50 years later.
For each of his seven major triumphs, Palmer was equally engaging in defeat. In the second episode entitled Arnie & His Majors, you see his agonizing U.S. Open losses at Oakmont (in a playoff to Jack Nicklaus), Brookline (missed a 2-footer on 18) and Olympic (blows a seven-shot lead on the back nine to Billy Casper).
“It was sickening,” his sister, Peg Palmer, said of the last meltdown.
Part one of the series is called Arnie & His Army while part three is titled Arnie & His Legacy. He was the man who made a handshake agreement with a former Fort Gordon-stationed soldier from Cleveland named Mark McCormick and changed the endorsement landscape for athletes. He was the guy he launched the concept of the Grand Slam and the driving force behind the Big Three with rivals Nicklaus and Player who still stand today as the Masters’ honorary starters.
Palmer’s name is on hospitals and airports and scholarships and car dealerships and iced tea. He has posed with starlets from Esther Williams to Kate Hudson and been friends with presidents, most notably Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Who in the hell would have ever thought that a greenkeeper’s, and I said greenkeeper’s son, from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, would ever play golf with the President of the United States?” he said.
Yet it’s Palmer’s genial charm and genuine respect for everyone he comes in contact with that make him the most beloved golfer in history. The films show his personal warehouse that contains countless treasures including every letter he’s ever received. He personally responds to each one, spending a six-figure sum in return postage annually.
“There’s this wonderful history of him writing letters to PGA Tour players who may win an event or fans who ask him for something,” McCarley said. “There’s just a very genuine, you treat people the way that you would like to be treated sort of aspect to the way he’s lived his entire life, and that’s really where (this project) started.”
Arnie will start the Masters on Thursday with the first honorary tee shot. And after the tournament ends Sunday, Arnie will be a perfect way to extend the Masters feeling with the man who has stayed alive in golf.