On Sept. 25, 2016, Donald Trump (then the Republican presidential nominee) tweeted, “Really sad news: The great Arnold Palmer, ‘the King,’ has died. There was no-one like him — a true champion! He will truly be missed.”
Many people knew Palmer better than I did. But I knew him. We worked together on a biography of his life a quarter-century ago. It was a nice relationship that became part of my own ongoing life journey. A year later, he asked me collaborate with him again; this time on an essay to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the United States Golf Association.
Arnold was politically conservative. He was also widely regarded as a symbol of decency and The Quintessential American. Meanwhile, Trump’s fondness for golf is well known. He crossed paths with Palmer on multiple occasions, and they co-hosted the opening of the Arnold Palmer Villa at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort in 2015.
@CBS4Sports @CBSMiami @realDonaldTrump unveils the Arnold Palmer Villa @LisaPetrillo pic.twitter.com/Ary9I3uuTg
— CBS4Sports (@CBS4Sports) March 4, 2015
I asked myself recently: What would Arnold Palmer think of Donald Trump today?
There was a time when playing golf with Palmer was as much a part of being president as inviting Billy Graham to the White House. The first president Arnold met was Dwight Eisenhower, who later became a family friend. They were introduced at the Laurel Valley Country Club in Ligonier, Pa., five months after Palmer’s breakthrough triumph at the 1958 Masters in Augusta. Arnold was so quiet and unpretentious that Eisenhower didn’t know who he was.
In the years that followed, the two men developed a fondness akin to a father-son relationship. But on Oct. 2, 1958, the chagrined President wrote:
Dear Mr. Palmer,
Because of the general confusion the other day, I failed to realize when Ben Fairless [Chairman of the Board of U.S. Steel] introduced us that you were the Arnold Palmer of 1958 Masters fame. I hope you will forgive my lack of reaction and accept, even this belatedly, my warm congratulations on your splendid victory.
Ben suggests that some time we might have an opportunity to play at Augusta. This I should very much like though, judging from the brand of golf I have recently been displaying, I would be more than embarrassed.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
In later years, one of Palmer’s most prized possessions was a painting given to him at a surprise birthday party in 1966 by the artist, Dwight Eisenhower. It’s a pastoral scene that graced the living room in the Palmer home in Latrobe, Pa., for years.
Arnold Palmer at the ceremony for President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s induction to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009. (Getty Images)
Professional golfers are a fairly conservative lot. A survey published in the October 2018 issue of Golf magazine asked PGA Tour players whether they had voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. 56% said “yes.” 14% didn’t bother to vote and 18% were ineligible to vote. Only 12% answered “no.”
Asked if they would vote for Trump if he ran again in 2020, 42% said “yes” and 14% were undecided. 19% said that they would be ineligible to vote. 5% said that they wouldn’t vote. 20% said “no.”
Palmer was comfortable in that political environment.
“My father was a Democrat,” Arnold told me during one of our conversations. “He thought Franklin Roosevelt hung the moon, but I’m the opposite. I think you solve problems through family and personal charity. The less that big government and big-name outsiders get involved, the better it is for us all.”
“I have strong opinions,” Arnold elaborated. “But I’ve made a conscious decision not to make a big issue of them publicly. I voice my opinions to my friends and family, generally in a conservative way. There are times when I’m tempted to be more outspoken. But usually I think about it for a day or two and pull in because I don’t want to be like a lot of people who I hear voicing opinions publicly. So when I’m outraged about something, politically or whatever, I express myself in the office and at home. Then I hear from the people who’ve heard me. And it’s rare that I get a hundred percent agreement on what I’ve said, so I drop it.”
While writing “Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey,” I spent time with Arnold in Latrobe and at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla., where he maintained a winter home. Each morning, we’d sit in his office. I’d turn on my tape recorder and we’d talk. Then Arnold would have a bowl of soup and go out to play 18 holes of golf. I’m not a golfer, but I’d walk the course with him.
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One morning at Bay Hill, I asked Palmer to critique the golf game of each president he’d played with.
“General Eisenhower was certainly a better player than the average American who played golf,” Arnold told me. “He hit the ball pretty well, but the strongest part of his game was his desire. He had other hobbies, but I don’t think any of them meant as much to him as golf. Richard Nixon wasn’t really a golfer. Gerald Ford had an 18 handicap and deserved every bit of it. But he hit the ball hard and at times played very well. Ford’s problem was, he had the yips putting.”
Palmer also called Ford “more of an Ohio State guy.” Ford, of course, had attended college at Michigan, but it wasn’t hard to figure out what Arnold meant. His arch-rival, Jack Nicklaus, had gone to Ohio State.
The critique of presidential golf games continued. Then Arnold had a bowl of soup and went out to play golf. I walked with him.
Palmer was 63 years old at the time. He played brilliantly that day. Through 12 holes, he was 4 strokes under par on the course where the Bay Hill Invitational (now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational) would be played the following week.
Arnold’s drive off the 13th tee split the fairway. Then, as we walked 200 yards toward his ball, I asked about the man who’d been elected president of the United States one month earlier.
“Apropos of what we were talking about this morning, would you like to play golf with Bill Clinton?”
Six months later, Palmer and Clinton would, in fact, play golf together. And Arnold would tell me, “Bill Clinton has the potential to be a very good golfer. He putts the ball very well. He’s strong and has a keen interest in the game. His swing is pretty good and he has a lot of determination to be a good player.”
President Bill Clinton and Arnold Palmer at the Presidents Cup golf tournament in 1996. (Getty Images)
But that was in the future. On this particular day, Arnold answered, “I suppose so. I’d be interested in seeing what kind of game he played and what he was like as a person. Of course, if you want my opinion, I don’t think Bill Clinton cares one bit about the average person. I think Bill Clinton is nothing but a phony. Bill Clinton …”
Arnold was getting madder and madder.
Then he hit his next shot into the pond that fronted the 13th green.
“Uh oh,” I told myself. “I’ve got a big problem.”
Arnold turned toward me with a look that was a combination of grimace, glare, and forced smile.
“Why did I lose my concentration like that?” he asked rhetorically.
Then he took a penalty drop and wound up with a double-bogey 6. Later, he rallied to finish the round with a 4-under-par 68.
So … That brings us to Palmer and Donald Trump.
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It would presumptuous for me to speculate regarding what Palmer would think about the man who currently occupies the White House. So I asked someone who knew Arnold as well as anyone still alive: his older daughter, Peg, who was born in the mid-1950s before her father rose to prominence.
“My dad was a complicated person,” Peg told me when I asked the question last week. “He grew up poor and became rich. He was a Goldwater Republican and believed in the Republican party. He and I learned not to discuss politics together. We saw things very differently, and there was no sense in fighting about it. Apart from our general political differences, he felt I didn’t understand how hard it had been for him to make his fortune and the compromises he’d had to make to be successful and stay successful, not just in golf but in the business world. It wasn’t as easy as it looked.”
As for Trump, Peg recalled, “My dad had dealings with him over the years at some charity fundraisers and a few other events that had to do with Trump’s golf courses. My dad cherished golf and he appreciated Trump’s support for the game. Trump looked up to my dad, so I suspect he was on his best behavior when they were together. But in the campaign, my dad saw a different side of him.”
“My dad didn’t like people who act like they’re better than other people,” Peg continued. “He didn’t like it when people were nasty and rude. He didn’t like it when someone was disrespectful to someone else. My dad had no patience for people who demean other people in public. He had no patience for people who are dishonest and cheat. My dad was disciplined. He wanted to be a good role model. He was appalled by Trump’s lack of civility and what he began to see as Trump’s lack of character.”
“One moment stands out in my mind,” Peg recounted. “My dad and I were at home in Latrobe. He died in September, so this was before the election. The television was on. Trump was talking. And my dad made a sound of disgust — like ‘uck’ or ‘ugg’ — like he couldn’t believe the arrogance and crudeness of this man who was the nominee of the political party that he believed in. Then he said, ‘He’s not as smart as we thought he was,’ ” and walked out of the room. What would my dad think of Donald Trump today? I think he’d cringe.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His next book – “Protect Yourself at All Times” – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.