A number of commentators have remarked on the mistreatment of the great Arnold Palmer since his death on Sunday. He was a major company and support in the sports community. He was constantly courted by presidents, pastors and proprietors; the press almost completely ignored his death. It is not just his many life achievements that brought him so much public notice, however. In virtually every walk of life he was a catalyst, redefining the game of golf for a new generation.
Palmer showed how the game could be an Olympic sport with the Hero Tour, a showcase for golfers with both physical and mental endurance. He pioneered the concept of a brain game, first with the PGA of America and later on a much more sophisticated level with Palmer’s Brain Training System and Wellness Academy. He changed the relationship between the Greens and the Rules of Golf so that the Open itself was conducted on a wide variety of courses that played very differently from the standard St Andrews or Augusta ones. He was a far more successful promoter of women’s golf than Augusta’s legendary Martha Burk ever was.
The entire process, from challenge, to modernization, to rehabilitation to a relevancy to a new generation of players, was extraordinary. From the very first course designed by the late Bob Estes, the mini-mill at Walnut Grove in Germantown, Alabama in 1934, the course started at a tiny divot that a 4-handicap man would surely have difficulty overcoming, and it progressively got more difficult. What began as a round-long tournament evolved into events that were more and more competitive. It became a competitive endeavor in which the best of the best took on one another. Each of these events was unique, and each saw a re-introduction of its own personality, which defined the one-time “wrong” course.
Players of all levels competed in those mini-mills. As the world of golf around them emerged as a commercial opportunity, one great thing Arnold Palmer did was to take golf and its players out of the backwater and into the light.
For those who came after him, there was no better running start than Arnold Palmer. Tiger Woods was 19 and 15th on the money list when Palmer and company really started to program his game. Nicklaus was 25 and 20th in 1985 and Woods was 26 and eighth in 1996. Many of the world’s great players were no longer amateurs, but still were on their way to challenging Palmer’s performance in those same mini-mills.
Throughout these years, however, Arnold Palmer never forgave himself for playing too many mini-mills and didn’t apologize for his methods, which was quite the contrary. “Give me anything other than a medal,” he used to say. It is very easy to relate to this comment when one remembers that not all the players of the mini-mills had the weapons and personnel to get as high as the Americans at the majors.
Back when courses were open, everyone had a chance to become an amateur, or a professional, and by now that natural level of parity had made a run at the biggest prizes possible, making the mini-mills a way for players to obtain a leg up.
So, too, did Palmer. He introduced these mini-mills, the mini-mills became full, and players with so much power took the challenge. This led to enormous financial success for the companies that produced and sponsored these courses, as well as the growing ambition to be the first serious competitor among the professionals. These mini-mills still exist, and the three really important ones in South Africa — Colonial, Nelson Mandela and Royal South Durban — are more of a collector’s item than are most of the others in the rest of the world.
A lot has changed for golf in the past half century and Arnold Palmer more than anyone had a major part in taking it on a new run. His legacy goes on, however, through his corporate backers and family and friends. He added value not only to golf, but to life. He left us a considerable legacy — his life was the exemplary professional.