From Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul The Second Round

Arnie’s Army

Arnold Palmer is the biggest crowd pleaser since the invention of the portable sanitary facility.

Bob Hope

Arnie faced a near impossible shot, at least in the eyes of mere mortals. Two hundred yards separated his ball and Memorial Park’s 4th hole. His ball rested on a crushed-shell maintenance path in the pocket of trees bordering the left side of the fairway, while the overhanging limb from a nearby oak tree restricted his powerful swing. Numerous swales in the fairway complicated his approach to the green, if he chose a low punch-and-run shot, and the canopy of tree foliage made a high-lofted shot unrealistic.

I had never seen or heard of Arnold Daniel Palmer in the spring of 1958. You see, I was just nine years old, a sandlot golfer since the age of seven, and totally unaware of the world of golf outside my own little world. Golf to me was still plastic golf balls, holes dug in the backyard and small tree branches with rags attached for flagsticks.

My father, God bless him, had decided today was the day to expose me to the masters of the fairways, and he drove us nearly an hour so that we could see the 1958 Houston Open. He, too, was anxious to see the man who had just won the Masters, and by the look of it, so was the entire golfing population of Houston.

A huge gallery surrounded Palmer and lined the fairways four deep. Around the green, they were six and seven deep, some using periscopes or stools, anything for a better vantage point to view their new hero. Arnie seemed unperturbed by the masses and more concerned with his very difficult shot. He took several practice swings in an effort to see just how much of a swing he could take without striking the tree limb. With each swing, his club struck the limb with a loud thump. The gallery muttered among themselves, assuming the worst. “What’s he gonna do?” asked one man. “I don’t know. Surely he’ll just chip out, ” said the other. Apparently, neither man had ever witnessed Arnold Palmer in action.

Arnie took a drag from his cigarette and tossed it to the ground. He stared into his bag, then to the hole, trying to imagine which club would produce the shot he desperately needed. The crowd, which had been buzzing, fell silent. My father lifted me to his broad shoulders, and we both peered over the dozens of heads straining to see what would happen next.

Palmer took out a 3-iron and addressed the ball. His feet scratched at the shale like a mad bull, trying to get his footing. One more practice swing and he was ready. You could hear a pin drop.

Whack! Almost instantaneously, shouts of approval and applause rose from those lucky enough to be nearest Arnie. The rest of us could see nothing, only crane our heads in the direction of the distant green—hoping to catch a glimpse of the ball streaking toward its target.

What happened next was probably more thrilling than if I had hit the shot myself. I never did see the ball, but what I heard sent chills down my spine. The thousands that lined the fairway and green let us know just how the shot was progressing. As the ball danced toward the green, the shouts and applause grew in intensity until, finally, a prolonged roar came that seemed to last forever. The enormous pines and oak trees inhabiting Houston’s Memorial Park echoed the thunderous applause tenfold across the fairways to the other spectators on the golf course. They seemed to trumpet the arrival of a new legend in the making—King Arnold.

When the crowd raced ahead of us toward the green, we could finally see where Arnie’s ball finished—six inches from the cup! The arrow from Cupid’s bow had been thrust deep into my heart! I can still see the smile and the joy on my father’s face, as we shared a truly magical moment together—father and son. From that very moment, I knew I wanted to be a professional golfer.

I was to see Arnie many more times in my youth. Whenever he competed in the Houston area, I was there with my golfing buddies, sometimes carrying signs that said “Go Arnie!” and cheering at the top of my lungs. Eighteen years after my experience at Memorial Park, I fulfilled the dream he instilled in me as a nine-year-old and qualified to play on the PGA Tour. I can honestly say that, had it not been for the man we idolize today, I might never have achieved the dream of becoming a professional golfer.

But it wasn’t just Arnie’s instant inspiration that got me there. It was also my wonderful father who made sure that I played and worked hard on my game. He plodded every step of that arduous journey with me—encouraging me, challenging me, and most of all, loving me. In my heart and soul, he will always be “The King.”

Bill Pelham

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