Gil LeBreton

Arnie’s Army? Sign me up

It wasn’t hard to see what led golf fans to join Arnie’s Army.
It wasn’t hard to see what led golf fans to join Arnie’s Army. AP

I’ve been in two armies in my life. The second one sent me to Vietnam. The first took me to the emerald paradise known as a golf course.

This was no ordinary conscription to a kid who grew up in a single-parent home with a mom who earned minimum wage at the nearby little Italian restaurant.

Our lawn was no bigger than a postage stamp. But a golf course seemed like something out of Gatsby — meadows of solitude that formed the stage for magicians dressed in pastels.

Arnie’s Army, they called the troops who marched with Arnold Palmer.

I was all in.

The first time I saw him in person was in the media tent of my hometown’s PGA tournament. I remember he greeted our sports editor with a warm handshake, and I was impressed by how approachable Arnie seemed. I had a vivid recollection of another pro, Gary Player, dressing down a young reporter for asking what Player deemed an unworthy question.

A few years later, the buzz in Fort Worth was that Palmer and Jack Nicklaus were both returning to play in the Colonial after a six-year absence.

Both broke par for the opening round, and Palmer was summoned to the interview room, which was squeezed that year into a room overlooking the swimming pool. A colleague, who shall remain nameless, was loudly chatting on the phone when Arnie came in.

He didn’t hang up. “Oh?” we heard the guy say. “That’s Arnold Palmer. Want to talk to him?”

Arnie laughed, waited for the reporter to hang up and carried on.

It wasn’t hard to see what enlisted golf followers into Arnie’s Army. He had an everyman’s grip-and-rip swing with a signature high corkscrew finish. He was charismatic and engaging, smiling with the crowd and sometimes, it’s been written, bumming smokes from them.

Ben Hogan’s and Byron Nelson’s careers peaked before television brought weekly golf into America’s homes. Nicklaus, in his early years, had yet to lose his college baby fat.

But Palmer was like golf’s Charlton Heston. He was burnished and fit, a perfectly sculpted athlete for the 1960s. He looked like an astronaut.

I was all in.

His first round at Colonial came in 1955 as a rookie on the tour. A nervous Palmer shot an 81 and overheard Hogan talking about him to tournament officials.

“He wanted to know how I got in the tournament,” Palmer laughed later.

Seven years later, Arnie won the whole thing.

He was 20 years removed from that victory when he returned to the tournament in 1982. Yes, he had a tartan plaid jacket. Yes, his name is etched on the first tee wall.

I’ve been so fortunate over the nearly five decades that I’ve been doing this. I saw Muhammad Ali box and Sandy Koufax pitch. I saw Johnny Unitas play quarterback and Willie Mays play center field.

And I saw Arnold Palmer swing a golf club.

I’m proud to say I was one of his troops.