45: The Day I Met the King

45: The Day I Met the King

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

The Day I Met the King

Gone golfin’... be back dark thirty.

~Author Unknown

I’ll always remember how I first met him. It was in my rookie year of 1977. Coincidentally, it occurred at a tournament that has become very special to me through the years, the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. We had the Monday qualifying system back then, and I had missed the first two qualifiers at Phoenix and Tucson. I had finally made it into my first official PGA Tour event at the Crosby and was out playing a practice round at Monterey Peninsula Country Club, one of the courses used in the rotation at the time.

It was late Tuesday afternoon before the tournament, and I had played the front nine and was somewhere on the back side when I noticed a large cloud of dust billowing up in the distance. It was like in the old cowboy movies when there’s a cattle drive or the posse’s ridin’ up on the bad guys, and I knew something important was happening. But I went about my business and, sensing I didn’t have time to finish all eighteen holes, I cut over to the sixteenth tee.

As this was my first time on the course, I really didn’t know the layout of the holes. I just knew I had about half an hour of sunlight left. So I hit a couple drives off the sixteenth, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, an incredible throng of spectators emerged over the rise behind me and surrounded the back of the tee.

It was like when the entire Bolivian army encircled Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and aimed their rifles at them. These people weren’t armed and dangerous, but they were sure looking at me with expressions that said:

Who is this kid, and what’s he doing out here?

And then the Red Sea parted, and who should walk through it but Arnold Palmer himself, The King. He couldn’t have been more regal had he been wearing a robe and carrying a staff.

I felt a chill come over me. I was shocked and embarrassed. I mean, here was my boyhood idol, and I’d just cut right in front of him, and hit two balls no less. I wanted to crawl into the ball-washer and disappear. But true to his character, Palmer walked up to me, shook my hand, introduced himself and said, “How are you?”

I managed to squeak out a “fine,” although I wasn’t. And he said, “Could we join you?”

Now that was the first thing he ever said to me, and it struck me so funny because I was thinking, “Can you join me?” What I wanted to say was, “Can I have your permission to crawl under a rock and stay there for a day as penance for getting in your way?”

But, of course, I acted cool, considered his request for a long second, and said, “Sure, love to have you,” like it was no big deal.

This was gut-check time, even if there was no money on the line, because in addition to meeting my idol for the first time, I also met Mark McCormack, who was Palmer’s amateur partner. McCormack was head of IMG, with whom I had signed just a few weeks before, but I wasn’t sure he even knew who I was.

Nevertheless, I was determined not to let the situation intimidate me, or worry about embarrassing myself. I’ve always loved the challenge of golf, whatever it may be, so I looked on this as just another challenge, and a darned good preparation for the coming week. After all, this was just a practice round, so I couldn’t worry about future endorsements, or impressing these guys. My goal at that point in my career was simple survival. All I wanted to do was make some cuts, make some money and keep my playing privileges. I was recently married and I wanted to be able to make it to that Christmas and have enough money to buy my wife a nice present.

But back to the sixteenth hole. Arnold hit a nice drive, and I remember feeling good that both of my drives were past his. If I felt a moment of cockiness, however, it quickly evaporated when I snap-hooked a 7-iron into the bunker. Fortunately, I got it up and down, and that eased my nerves. On the next tee, Arnold asked me what kind of ball I was playing, and I told him it was a Titleist.

He said, “You ought to try one of these good balls,” and tossed me a Palmer ball. I hit it and liked it, so he tossed me a three-pack and said, “As a rookie starting out, you need good equipment, and these might help you along the way.” He was sincerely trying to be helpful, because it wasn’t as if he needed the endorsement of an unknown kid from Oregon playing his golf balls.

As abruptly as the experience of playing golf with Arnold Palmer had begun, so it ended. After holing out at 18, Palmer thanked me, wished me luck in my career and disappeared into the madding crowd. When I looked up a few seconds after shaking his hand, everyone was gone. I mean everyone. There was no more Arnie’s Army, only Peter’s Poltergeists. I had to shake my head to make certain it had really happened.

~Peter Jacobsen with Jack Sheehan
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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