Thoughts on Arnold Palmer

Last year, when I was getting ready for my 50-year class reunion of the 1965 graduating class from Hettinger High School, I dug through boxes of keepsakes downstairs and found my senior class yearbook. It was actually an expanded edition of the Hettinger Hi-Lites, our high school newspaper, but it was the same format as a yearbook, slick paper and about 40 pages, just cheaper to print than a hard-cover book. One of the goofy things we did in those days was to print a “Class Prophecy,” in which a bunch of us on the newspaper staff (I had two passions in my high school days—journalism and golf—and served on the newspaper staff and played on the high school golf team) sat around a big table and made up stuff about each class member based on what they liked to do at the time.

Art Barclay for example, was a good dancer (and, it turns out, the only gay member of our class, although none of us knew very much about that kind of thing in 1965, and the term gay had not yet been invented, I don’t think, at least not in Hettinger) and his prophecy was “Art Barclay is now owner and operator of Arthur Barclay’s Dance Studio in New York City.”

There were other kind of funny and sometimes kind of cruel things like “Carol Edrman (who dated Dean Schoeder, the son of the manager of the Co-op Grocery Store) is now the head butcher at the Hettinger Co-op Store,” and  “Charles Carter (a notoriously fast and reckless driver in high school) has returned to HHS, and is now teaching Safe Driving,” and “Don Davidson (who had red hair and blushed a lot around girls) has just discovered a permanent cure for red hair,” and “Harvey Jeffers (who played guitar and started a band) has just made the Dave Clark Five the Dave Clark Six,” and “Jim Goplin (kind of a ladies man and slick dresser) has become a famous fashion expert and has just put on the market lipstick repellent shirts,” and “Karen Solseth (the tallest and skinniest girl in the class) has just been elected National President of TOPS Club.”

And there was this: “Jim Fuglie has just replaced Arnold Palmer as World’s Champion Golfer.”

I had two idols in High School: my dad, and Arnold Palmer. Both were golfers, and both were the best at what they did, where they were—my dad was club champion at Hettinger Country Club many times, and Arnold Palmer, of course, “The King,” was the best golfer in the world in those days. I was a golf fanatic in high school, playing on the school golf team, practicing every day from 3:30 until dark, working at the golf course raking those sand greens and practicing putting when Joe Manning, the course owner, wasn’t looking, playing after supper every night when I got off work from my summer job building steel grain bins and didn’t have bales to haul, and all day Saturday if I wasn’t unloading a train car load of beer at the Hettinger beer distributorship, and all day Sunday from the time church got out until dark.

And I was alternately, in my mind, each time I swung that club, either “Doc” Fuglie or Arnold Palmer (and there was a time I was pretty sure my dad could beat Arnie). I never got as good as either of them, but I wasn’t bad, and I actually earned a golf scholarship of $50 per quarter for the first two years I attended Dickinson State College. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but tuition then was $115 a quarter, so it wasn’t bad.

Arnold Palmer died this week. It’s hard to imagine. In my life, I have never known a time without Arnold Palmer. He rose to fame, and the game of golf rose in popularity, as I was growing up in the late 50s and early 60s. He basically re-invented the game of golf, and he brought a generation of young people like me to the game, as Tiger Woods has done more recently. And he never went away. When he got surpassed by younger men like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, he started the Seniors Tour, and then created the Golf Channel on TV, and I saw him in a TV commercial for some medicine last week, still flashing those strong arms and that shock of blond hair and that giant smile.

No, I never replaced Arnold Palmer as World’s Champion Golfer. But I got close to him a couple times. The first time was in 1970, and I was in the Navy, stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, going to school to learn to be a motion picture cameraman. I was going to be assigned to an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, and my job was going to be to take movies. Some in my class were going to be underwater cameramen, like a high school classmate of mine, Larry Cregger, but I was going to sit up on the O-7 level of the aircraft carrier and make movies of flight operations and shoot film of the occasional Russian Bear airplane that would fly past us at low levels, taking still photos and making movies of our ship. The Bears were big planes like B-52’s, and when they came by at about the same level as I was at, up seven stories above the flight deck of our ship, the photographers in their plane and I would wave at each other as we shot our film. But I digress.

In Pensacola, at motion picture school in the Spring of 1970, our final assignment was to actually make a movie, from start to finish. Script it, shoot it, develop the film, and edit it into a final production. Choose any subject you want. You’ve got a week to get it done. Well, I decided to make a movie titled “How To Play Golf.” I got one of my classmates out to the base golf course and we filmed him swinging the club and putting, and I started writing the script (there was no sound on these movies, so we used subtitles) like “Keep your left arm straight on the backswing,” and “Keep your head down and your eyes on the ball.”

And then I read in the paper one morning that the Pensacola Open Golf Tournament, an official PGA event, was going to be held in Pensacola, just down the beach from our Navy base, the next week. Jackpot! On Thursday, the first day of the tournament, I grabbed my old Bell and Howell windup camera with its three-lens turret and headed for Pensacola Country Club. I decided I was going to film a famous golfer and then use the footage of him in my golf instruction video with my subtitles. Well, I set out looking for Arnold Palmer, my hero. And I found him somewhere in the middle of the course, in the middle of his round, and I got a hole ahead of him and stationed myself on the tee box, waiting for him to arrive. Sure enough, he came striding down the path from the previous green in that long gait of his, and I damn near wet my pants, I was so excited.

I had decided what I would do is turn up the speed on the camera as I shot the film, so that when I played it back, it would appear in slow motion. I wound up that baby as tight as it would go, because I knew I’d only have 30 seconds or so at that speed before it wound down and stopped. Arnie stepped up to the ball. Just as he began his backswing, I hit the start button. But I had forgotten how much noise the camera made at high speed, and in the dead silence on the tee box, as The King was taking his swing, my camera made the loudest WHIRRRRR you’ve ever heard on a golf course. A hundred people on the tee box looked around to see where the noise was coming from. Luckily for me, Arnie didn’t—he finished his famous lunging swing, and I got it on film before I was descended on by a tournament official and Arnie’s caddy, who politely asked me not to do that while Arnie was swinging. I apologized, and quickly explained what I was doing—that I was in the Navy and making a movie for a class assignment. The caddy grabbed Arnie’s clubs and took off down the fairway.

I followed at a safe distance, deciding I would follow my hero for a few holes before I headed back to the base. The crowd following Arnie was considerable, but not overwhelming like crowds at PGA events are today, and I puffed up my chest as I thought to myself “Today I am part of Arnie’s Army! Boy, I wish my dad could see me now!” I got behind the green at the end of the hole, watching the players putt, and as they left the green, the caddy spotted me and shouted “Hey, Navy man, come over here.”

Oh boy, I thought, I’m in for it now. I walked over. Arnie was already headed for the next tee. The caddy said “Mr. Palmer says if you want to come out and make movies of him tomorrow on the practice tee, that would be okay with him.”

Well, that was a wonderful gesture, but of course I had spent all the money I could afford to get in the gate that day, and needed to get my movie made the next day, and I really had the one shot I wanted to get, which I did indeed use, in slow motion, in the final product I handed in to my instructors a couple days later. It wasn’t great, but it got me graduated from Motion Picture School and on my way to the Gulf of Tonkin. And it was my first experience as a member of Arnie’s Army.

Arnie only won a handful of tournaments after that. He won most of his 50 or so tournaments in the 1960s, and the new, younger players like Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, and Ben Crenshaw were building their great careers in the 1970s. But Arnie kept playing, and I got to see him play one more time, in 1978, at the Phoenix Open. I followed him as part of the Army for 18 holes the last day of the tournament, and I remember he finished 5th. He was playing right in front of Lee Trevino, the “Merry Mex,” and I would hold back on some of the holes and watch him, which was just as much fun. Trevino finished 2nd. It doesn’t matter who won.

Well, the King is dead. We’ll not be able to say “Long live The King,” because there will never be another one. There will be golfers who dominate the sport from time to time, like Jack and Tiger and Jordan, but there’ll never be another Arnold Palmer.

But I have my memories. I just wish I had that movie.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Arnold Palmer

  1. Great story and great memory of two great guys — Arnie and you. I loved golf, but unlike you I was a golf idiot who never learned to play the game but loved to be with friends on the golf course. I didn’t write the class prophecy for my school,but did the poem: “Carl Dahl’s a fine fellow and if I’m not nosey I’d say it looks rosie for him and Miss Ouse”. (That was 67 years ago and they are still married!).
    Finally, isn’t it wonderful to be able to say our dads were our heroes? Every man should be so fortunate.

    Like

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