Ben Wright: The King and I

The first time I interviewed Arnold Palmer was at the Centenary Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1960. Palmer said he could spare some time between the final two rounds on Friday, and that I should meet him in the subterranean locker room. He had outscored Kel Nagle, the amiable but tough former Australian Marines sergeant, 70 to 71 in the morning, but knew he had to mount one of his patented charges to win in the afternoon, since he was still four shots adrift. To say that he was excited at the prospect is an understatement.

Palmer was cleaning the grooves of some of his irons when I arrived. Almost immediately, with a thunderstorm raging above and the Valley of Sin transformed into a water hazard, the public address system blared that the fourth round had been postponed until the following morning. Palmer flung his clubs down the corridor between the lockers and screamed that “they” had taken away his momentum, and that he would never be able to recapture it in the cold light of morning. And he was right. Despite a 68 to Nagle’s 71, Palmer came up a single stroke short.

The 17th Green on the Old Course at St. Andrews, with the Swilcan Bridge in the background. Photo by Kevin Murray.

Once he calmed down, he was mumbling something about revising all his travel arrangements when a locker door suddenly burst open and water from a busted pipe came cascading down on to the floor. We spent the next half-hour scrambling madly to pick up many, many pairs of golf shoes, eventually cackling madly at the absurdity of the situation. Needless to say what followed was an interview that I will never forget!

Exactly a year later the whole of the final day’s play was cancelled when a storm came through on Thursday night and flattened every marquee in the tented village at Royal Birkdale. The dreadful mess was uncannily reminiscent of a World War I battlefield. But this time Palmer prevailed in a classic duel against the brilliant Welshman Dai Rees on the final day. At the start of it Rees led by a single stroke, but going to the final stanza Palmer had taken over the lead by that same slender margin with a 69 to Rees’ 71.

Both men scored 72 that fateful afternoon, but it was Palmer who played the master stroke at the 15th hole with disaster staring him palpably in the face. A dogleg right of some 400 yards was made increasingly treacherous by a headwind of more than 30 m.p.h. Palmer’s drive found a vicious willow scrub literally a yard right of the fairway. Most mere mortals would have deemed the ball unplayable, since willow scrub has fierce thorns and an unbending disposition. Not Palmer. My good friend, the late Pat Ward-Thomas, and I watched in awe as Palmer literally removed the bush with his Herculean stroke, and the ball landed on the plateau green, a shot of about 150 yards.

“My God,” exclaimed Pat. “This man is a Colossus!” The legend quickly spread, as well it might, and in due course a brass plaque was stationed where the bush had stood, in celebration of the great man’s sheer strength, not to speak of his skill and charisma.

Another year later at Royal Troon in the 1962 Open Palmer almost lapped the field. His margin over runner-up Nagle was six shots. But Welshman Brian Huggett and America’s Phil Rodgers, who tied for third, were a further seven strokes back. The inward half of Palmer’s third round of 67 sent the huge crowd into something approaching delirium, so majestic was the King’s stroke-making in what locals called “a stiff breeze!” I well remember that Ken Bowden, at the time editor of Golf World (UK), literally had cleat marks all over his back after getting downtrodden in the rush.

Now that he has decided his game will no longer be exposed to the public gazes—and most fans I know wouldn’t care if the great man shot 100 or 200—I feel that he should get credit from me for single handedly restoring the Open Championship to its former glory. The most extraordinary fact about Palmer’s career is that he won his last major title in 1964. Forty-three years later he is still revered as “The King,” and rightly so. If I may call you Arnie, thank you for these memories, and many, many more. I sincerely hope you enjoy your golf with the boys at your Bay Hill Club as long as you love to play.