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Happy 80th Arnie!

A saulte to Arnold Palmer, one of golf's greatest players and people

Posted Sep 16, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

arnold palmer

Few birthdays have been more welcomed in golf than Arnold Palmer's 80th, which fell on September 10th. The reason for this, lies in something he told me during a charming meeting we had at The K Club some years ago. "I find if you're nice to people," said Arnie, "it always comes back to you, one way or another."

That particular observation resonated wonderfully through what I consider to be the most remarkable, human story I've ever come across in golf. Curiously, it had its beginnings in a stampeding crowd, showing what was described as "a revolting disregard for stewards and police", as it closed in on the final pairing of Palmer and Kel Nagle. This was Troon 1962, when the charismatic American retained the Open Championship by six strokes from Nagle, so gaining sweet revenge for defeat by the Australian at St Andrews two years previously.

From reports of the chaos on the 72nd hole, one can only speculate as to the problems a 10-year-old local lad named Ian Hay must have faced, in attempting to get close to the final green. He needed to be there to get the autograph of this amazing American, who had shot a championship record aggregate of 276. And by way of illustrating the remarkable resourcefulness of children, young Hay, autograph book in hand, succeeded in reaching Palmerís side in his moment of triumph by worming his way between adults' legs.

As evidence of Master Hay's success, the moment was captured in a photograph which appeared on the front page of the Glasgow Evening Citizen. During our K Club meeting, this delightful incident was recalled to me by the player whom golf aficionados still call the King.  "After I was diagnosed with prostate cancer (in 1997), my wife and daughter went with me to the Mayo Clinic," said Palmer. There, during a preparatory consultation, he noticed something distinctly familiar about a photograph on the wall of the doctor's surgery.

Astonishingly, it was the photograph from the Glasgow newspaper of 35 years previously. And the same Ian Hay was now about to treat the man he had idolised. "He became my quarter-back, that's a term I use," said Palmer. "If you go to a clinic it's nice to have a man who watches everything you do. And Ian got me to the right doctor and then watched what happened when I was there being operated on."

After surgery, Palmer made a full recovery. And Dr Hay's reward? "I got Arnie to sign the picture," he said. "It's been wonderful being able to help my boyhood hero."  

Those of us who have come to admire Palmer over more than half a century would have seen Dr Hay's presence as a wonderfully appropriate reward for someone who has always displayed a great love of people. Meanwhile, at The K Club, he said, "I have an appointment with Ian in a couple of weeks at the Mayo Clinic. When I left there, he kept track of my progress with my local doctor. So I always say he's the best quarter-back in the league. Heís an internal medicine man who knows the right people to treat your particular complaint. I had a check-up in May and I believe everything is OK. So my next meeting with Ian will be only routine, I hope."

Everything must have been fine, given that several years have passed since then.  In the event, Palmer added:  "I believe that's part of why I have had so much good fortune in my life. Because I talk to people."

He went on to recall his close friendship with the prince of British golf-writers, Pat Ward-Thomas, and how they and their respective wives played bridge together. And how Ward-Thomas, who wrote beautifully on golf for the Guardian and Country Life magazine, had flown one of Palmer's planes from his experience as a wartime pilot in the RAF.  Flying, of course, has been a huge part of the great man's life since 1955 and at the time of our meeting, he had a Citation 10 and was immensely proud of having flown 17,000 hours, which was about 70 per cent more than the average airline pilot would do over an entire career.

When considering his incalculable contribution to tournament golf and especially to the Open Championship in which he had his swansong at St Andrews in 1995, it seems that his legacy was already determined as far back as that fateful July day at Troon in 1962. That was when Ward-Thomas paid him this beautiful tribute: "In technique, attitude and manner, he makes some of his famous rivals seem puny. Palmer's presence has brought greatness once more to the old Championship. It has inspired others to compete and has set a new standard which can only benefit all who follow."

And remarkably, he's still doing it.

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