Q & A with Arnold Palmer

Questions to the King

Published Friday, April 15, 2011

Arnold Palmer: 1960s "Athlete of the Decade" (Associated Press poll), one of "The 25 Coolest Athletes of All Time" (GQ, Feb. 2011), successful businessman and golf legend. In addition to an impressive 92 overall victories, including seven Major championships, four Masters, and PGA Player of the Year in 1960 and 1962, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush in 2004 and the Congressional Medal of Honor from Barack Obama in 2009. Arnold Palmer is also the most successful sports athlete universally to brand and license products bearing his name, bringing his traits of character, endurance, reliability and integrity to the forefront of the business.

While many know him for his celebrated golf achievements and related businesses, Arnold Palmer also is a philanthropist, supporting numerous charities and hospitals in his name. Mr. Palmer also dedicated his time to working with NCA in the 1970s on an extensive campaign to retain the tax deduction for club dues. Mr. Palmer talked at length with Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) about the devastating effect the disallowance would impose on private clubs. Please read the "Article from the Archives" on page 26 to see how this issue evolved.

Club Director is pleased to share some of Arnold Palmer’s insights on the game of golf, private clubs and related activities and organizations that contribute to the golf industry and private club world.

Club Director – You’ve seen a lot of modern changes to the game of golf since your Wake Forest College days. Where do you see the game heading in relation to:

  • New and improved equipment?
  • Shorter versions of the game?
  • Golf course design?
  • Player development?

Arnold Palmer – We will continue to see new innovations in golf equipment and that’s good. Hybrids and rescue clubs, drivers with large heads, new putter designs, even range-finder equipment that is gaining more and more acceptance by golf administrators. Whatever golfers feel will help them enjoy the game more is good.  

I am very much in favor of creating the so-called executive courses when the availability of land is limited, but I hope that we will stick with the standard nine- and 18-hole course designs. I don’t think we should be tinkering with what has been the essence of the game over the centuries.

Course designs today are focusing more and more on building in the strategy factor, even though the length that today’s young players are hitting the ball seems to dictate building them longer. The answer is to slow down the golf ball. I’ve been advocating this for years now. If that doesn’t happen, more of our existing courses will be turned into driver-and-wedge courses.

Surveys show that the growth of the game has flattened out in recent years, part of that, of course, is because of the economy. On the other hand, greater effort is being taken to interest young people and bring them into the game through organizations like The First Tee program. I am optimistic that our great game not only will survive but will thrive again in future years.

It’s amazing how much the game has changed in my lifetime even while adhering to the basic foundation laid so many years ago. I really believe these changes have, by and large, been for the better.

CD – How have private clubs changed over the years?  What changes do you see in the future?

AP – I would say that private clubs have developed a more relaxed atmosphere. The clubs have recognized that they face much more competition to attract their family members to club activities in this day and age when there are so many more activities appealing to adults and children. One thing most clubs have done, it seems, is to adjust from rigid rules to today’s lifestyles in dress codes, food service and the like.

It has also been good to see that many racial and ethnic constraints in the private-club world are melting away in these more-enlightened times.

As for the future, I see the industry going with the technological flow and utilizing the constant advances to their best advantage, just as they have up until now.

Arnold Palmer in competition at Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournament.

CD – Arnold Palmer Design Company has always been very concerned about the environment. What are the keys to designing, building and managing successful golf and country clubs?  Are there ways to reduce the cost of the game by becoming more environmentally friendly?

AP – Contrary to what some uninformed people say, I think that golf courses usually enhance the wildlife and environment on and around them. A good example would be the course that we created on property that was a landfill. Another would be Arbor Links, a daily-fee course we built for the Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska that is, in effect, a living environmental laboratory. People are working very hard to improve the environment by using less water and fewer chemicals. I think it is imperative that this be done.

When I'm designing a new course, I am sometimes influenced by existing holes I’ve seen and played. When you consider all of the courses (some 300) we have done on a wide variety of land and terrain, you won’t detect that influence in very many holes. Persons who don’t know who the designer was don’t come away from our courses identifying them as Palmer courses.

As for wildlife, often there is more local wildlife on a site after many courses are completed than beforehand.

CD – Let’s talk about golf as an Olympic sport in 2016. Do you have any thoughts about whether a new course will be built in Rio de Janeiro for the games?  How would you organize the competition?

AP – I am sure Brazil will be building a new course for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and I would love to have the opportunity to be its designer. We are doing a course in Sao Paulo now, so we already have a foot in the door in Brazil. It usually takes about three years from start to finish of a new golf course and they will want to have that course open well before the Olympics there.

It almost certainly will have to be a stroke-play event with so many countries involved. Probably teams of five or six players with several of the best scores of each team counting. It should be quite interesting. Look for some unexpected developments.

CD – Are you involved in any current project for The First Tee program?

AP – I have been involved in one way or another with The First Tee since its inception. My company built one of first short courses for The First Tee chapter in Augusta, Georgia, only a few miles from the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. And I have been the honorary chairman of The First Tee of Pittsburgh for many years. I am also honorary chairman of an extensive Junior Golf Weekend being supported throughout Western Pennsylvania this spring by a wide range of golf and governmental organizations at some of the area’s finest clubs.

I am always pleased to help promote the game with our young people who will be the backbones of golf and the club industry in future years.

You might find it interesting to know that a few years ago we gave the Pittsburgh First Tee a couple of hundred sets of woods and irons that I had shipped to Latrobe when we closed the Arnold Palmer Golf Company a decade or so ago. I’m sure they are being put to good use.

Arnold Palmer winning the 1961 Western Golf Association Open.
Photo Credit: Dale Winchester

CD– You celebrated a landmark birthday in 2009 – your 80th – and have been in the spotlight for more than 50 years. NCA is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Any thoughts about how organizations like NCA can continue to provide valuable services to the golf industry just as you continue to innovate, inspire and contribute to the world of golf?

AP – The National Club Association is certainly one of the most important of the many organizations that make up the framework of support for the many aspects of the game of golf. As the private club industry’s only active voice in Washington, the NCA plays a key role in keeping all of us up-to-date and aware of what is going on in the halls of our federal government.

In these trying economic times, the private-club industry has been struggling with the budgets and balance sheets. Since I am heavily involved with clubs in Latrobe, Orlando and Pebble Beach, I am facing this and find it particularly important that we have a watchdog in Washington to try to insure that legislation affecting the club membership is beneficial and not detrimental.

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