I had 20 minutes to chat with Arnold about the 1955 U.S. Open (his third National Open and first as a pro), Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, life on the PGA Tour in the 1950s, Cherry Hills (where Palmer won his only U.S. Open) and anything else I could squeeze in. It went by quickly.
With the Arnold Palmer Invitational teeing off tomorrow, this seemed like the perfect time to share that memorable conversation.
I know that you played at Olympic in 1955. What do you remember about that?
ARNOLD PALMER: That was my first year on tour. I can’t give you too much detail. I did not play particularly well.
That was your third Open. You made the cut that year. You finished 21st. Do you remember anything about the course setup and what it was like that first time you went out to Olympic?
ARNOLD PALMER: Not really. Of course, I remember it pretty well from ‘66. And I didn’t find a lot of changes. The only thing I can recall is that it might have been a little bit longer in ‘66 than it was in ‘55. Other than that, I suppose the biggest problem was I didn’t do all the things that I thought I should do there.
Let’s talk about the two main characters of that Open. When I talked to the other players, they didn’t really know much at that time about Jack Fleck. Did you know who Jack Fleck was in ‘55?
ARNOLD PALMER: Yeah, I knew him. I had played golf with him a number of times prior to the Open.
What were your impressions of him and his golf game?
ARNOLD PALMER: All of us gave him credit for being a really good player, but being perfectly up front and honest about it, I didn’t know enough about him to really say that he was Open-winning golf. He was a great guy, good player and a friend, as a matter of fact. I think that if we were asked at the time, we probably would say that Hogan would have smothered him in the playoff.
That is the consensus that I’ve heard from talking to other players and everything I’ve read. It was pretty amazing. I know at that time Jack hadn’t won on tour. I think his highest finish was 8th, so he was still somewhat of an unknown as far as the public was concerned.
ARNOLD PALMER: Right.
Obviously, your career really took off. You won that year for the first time in Canada.
ARNOLD PALMER: That’s right.
At the end of my book [THE LONGEST SHOT] I talk about Cherry Hills. I know that in 1960 you had a tremendous year where you won the Masters and the Open. But you also won six other tournaments. In fact, Jack was in a playoff with you at the Insurance City Open along with Bill Collins. Do you remember anything about that?
ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I remember the playoff. I think I won on the second hole, didn’t I?
It went something like four holes. You did win. Bill Collins dropped out on the first hole, and then it was just you and Jack.
Let’s jump to Hogan. What stands out in your memory about him as a player?
ARNOLD PALMER: Well, I think we all respected his game. I was so fresh that I can’t really say too much about Hogan. He was a great player. That’s sort of the way it goes.
When you came out as a rookie, who were the players that you really admired and looked up to?
ARNOLD PALMER: I think Nelson and Hogan and Middlecoff and Mangrum and Snead.
There were a bunch of good players.
ARNOLD PALMER: Yes, there were.
I wonder if you remembered Harvie Ward?
ARNOLD PALMER: I played against Harvie in college. (Arnold attended Wake Forest College.)
He was at North Carolina, wasn’t he?
ARNOLD PALMER: That’s right. The first time I played Harvie Ward, he shot 67 and I dusted him 5 and 4.
What kind of player was he, Arnold?
ARNOLD PALMER: He was a great player. He was a good friend and a great player.
That’s what others have told me, too. And he continued to compete as an amateur. I’ve had people tell me that he was one of the best players in the world as an amateur in the mid 50s.
ARNOLD PALMER: That’s right.
I wanted to ask you what life on tour was like when you first came out. I talked to Rossie [Bob Rosburg] a couple of years ago before he passed. He said he traveled with you and there was a lot of camaraderie, and it was just a whole different scene back then. Can you tell me a little bit of your impressions of life on tour back in the 50s?
ARNOLD PALMER: We drove everywhere, first thing. For the first year I was on tour, I pulled a trailer. That was interesting in itself, with my wife, going from the West coast to the East coast and then up to my home. My wife said to me, “I love you and I’ll do anything you want, but I’m not going to live in a trailer ever again.” (Chuckling.)
It was not an easy thing to do, was it?
ARNOLD PALMER: No, it sure wasn’t. It was tough.
I look at purses where the total purse was 15, 20, 25 thousand dollars.
ARNOLD PALMER: Hell, there were only 15 money places on the tour. At every tournament, the max was 15. And 15th was $100. So, you think about that. And if you won and it was a pretty good tournament, you won $2,000.
That was a different era, for sure. There was a nice celebration at Cherry Hills this past summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of your [1960 U.S. Open] win there. Can you tell me what that was like for you?
ARNOLD PALMER: It was wonderful. I’m trying to think who all was there. Some of the guys that played in the Open were there. Cherry Hills did a wonderful job of putting on a big affair. The membership was sold out. We talked about the Open and some of things that happened. It was very nice.
You probably remember quite a bit about that Open.
ARNOLD PALMER: I wouldn’t say I could give you all the details, but I remember some of things that happened. I thought I played pretty well for three rounds and nothing happened. I was just sort of in limbo. Then the last round it all happened.
I’ve gone over that front nine you shot on the fourth round, where you birdied something like six out of the first seven holes. I know you shot 30 on the front nine of that final round.
ARNOLD PALMER: Right.
Do you remember when you reached that point where you thought I’m right in this and I can win it?
ARNOLD PALMER: In those days, I kind of played like I could win whatever, from anywhere. And I played a little bit that way.
Do you think you were a little bit more focused and a better player when you played from behind?
ARNOLD PALMER: Let’s just say I never ruled out the possibility of winning. Until it was figuratively impossible, I always thought I had a shot.
I think you were playing right behind Hogan and Nicklaus during that final round.
ARNOLD PALMER: Yeah, you’re right.
You saw Hogan hit into the water on 17?
ARNOLD PALMER: I did. I was standing in the middle of the fairway when he hit into the water.
And then you were probably thinking a couple of pars and you’d be in pretty good shape.
ARNOLD PALMER: I knew that I had a shot if I didn’t screw up the last two holes.
Did you like the golf course?
ARNOLD PALMER: Cherry Hills? Very much, yes.
And 280 ended up winning the Open after all, Arnold. You did it.
ARNOLD PALMER: Right. (Chuckling.)
Neil Sagebiel (aka The Armchair Golfer) is the author of THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open, from St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books). Learn more at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
(Photo: Courtesy of Golf Channel)