CINCINNATI -- The movie "Caddyshack" was more authentic than you might think. There were probably greens keepers like Bill Murray and obnoxious club members like Rodney Dangerfield, but that's not what I mean. Back in in the 1950s and '60s, I thought golf was a sport for country clubbers. Judge Smails seemed like a real-life character. I'm not sure if I was right or wrong, but golf seemed exclusive, expensive and unattainable behind those big metal gates.
I don't know if Arnold Palmer changed that thinking single-handedly, but he certainly played a part.
We had three television channels and very little televised golf in those days. I read about golf in the Vindicator and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. And I heard stories from my dentist, who didn't fill my cavities on Thursday because that was his golf day. Some kids caddied, but that meant hitching a ride to a club several miles away. It just never seemed like a game for the masses.
Palmer somehow broke through that barrier. His flair was non-clubbish. He had style, he showed emotion, and he didn't seem stuffy. And he was a winner of big events. Jack Nicklaus provided him with a rival. Gary Player provided him with flavor. Lee Trevino brought along the fun. Television noticed and pretty soon, we were watching those guys on Sunday afternoon.
Arnie's greatest hits preceded the Beatles, yet his popularity hip-hopped well into the 21st century. He was in the vanguard for the growth of the PGA tour. He was in the forefront for athletes who sold the game, sold products and sold themselves.
Palmer had a moderately strong presence in Cincinnati. He played the Kroger Senior Classic at least five times from what I could chronicle. The most significant visit was in 1991 when he was paired in a threesome with Nicklaus and Trevino. It drew a huge crowd and got national attention.
I remember him talking to WCPO's Bill Hemmer that first day. He said it was important for him to be there because it would help the senior tour flourish. Plus, he said he loved playing golf with the the guys against whom he had competed for years.
I got to see him in 1998 when he came to the Oasis Golf Club in Loveland, a course that he designed. He held a clinic at the first tee prior to playing a round. I remember looking at all the fans who were there. A few were old enough to see Palmer in his prime, but most knew him from legend and his commercials.
"You all ready?" he asked the gallery that day in Loveland. "Yeah!" the fans shouted back. Arnie sighed and said, "I'm not sure I am." After all, Arnie was 69 years old.
"Golf is a deceptively easy and endlessly complicated game," he told the gathering. That tickled the fans. It was good to hear one of golf's greats say the game often drove him crazy, too. He seemed like a guy who would be fun to have a beer with.
Then he turned and smacked a drive down the first fairway. The style was all his own. The follow-through was unmistakable. He stared at the drive for a moment while the crowd held its breath. "That wasn't too bad," he admitted. The crowd loved it.
He still had his army that traveled with him. When he walked the course, it looked like the final day of the Masters. Fans encircled every tee, every green and cheered every shot, whether it was good or not.
Of course, this was a business trip. He said how well his company was doing. "We're opening a new golf course every day in the United States -- every day," he emphasized. The game was booming in those days.
He enjoyed doing business, or at least he gave you that impression. It didn't seem to be a chore to sign autographs, to interact with the fans, to chat with some of the the ham-and-eggers who were paired with him. Fans were thrilled to catch a glimpse of a legendary sports figure.
And not only a sports figure, but an innovator. About a month ago, I stopped by a fast food restaurant in Northern Kentucky, and I ordered an Arnold Palmer. Without hesitating, the young lady waiting on me filled a cup halfway with lemonade and halfway with iced tea. Being curious, I asked her if she knew who Arnold Palmer was. "Yes," she said confidently. "He's the guy who invented this drink."