There are certain invitations you don’t turn down. A chance to have lunch and spend a good part of the day with Arnold Palmer is one of those.
Palmer’s Bay Hill golf course went through a major renovation this summer. As is customary, the Palmer Course Design Company invited some media from around the country to preview the course and to talk to Arnold about the changes in Orlando last Tuesday.
I’ve known Arnold Palmer for a long time and I’m sure he makes everybody feel like they’re actually his friend. I’m asked often about whether my job is any good and my stock answer is, “I’ve had beers with Arnold Palmer and I’ve flown with the Blue Angels. How much better can it be?”
I have had beers with Arnold; I’ve had “guy” conversations with him. I’ve been with him at lunch in Ed Seay’s office. He encouraged me to get my pilot’s license and since I have, we talk about aviation and flying now each time we meet. I’ve learned a lot from Arnold.
In fact, my playing partner, David Couch of APCD at Bay Hill confirmed what I’ve thought for a long time: A lot of us have learned a lot from Arnold and in turn, from Ed Seay.
Being on television in one town for nearly 30 years doesn’t make you a celebrity but it does make you recognizable. So people want to talk to me often, and I’ve always tried to take the lessons I’ve learned from watching Arnold deal with everybody he meets. He’s warm and gives you his full attention.
I learned a lot of how manage in a professional setting by watching Ed Seay, Arnold’s partner. And often, Ed would explain that he got a lot of that from Palmer himself. Friendly, firm and forward thinking, Arnold Palmer probably doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to run a business and keep people around him motivated and productive.
It’s obvious that Arnold was involved in the process of sprucing up Bay Hill. They brought in over 200 trees; they re-shaped and even moved some of the bunkers. They changed the fairways and put new grass on the greens. The most dramatic change is the “beach bunker” in front of the 17th green. It’s still a tough hole, but like the rest of the changes it’s perfect.
It’s just what Palmer likes: tough, pleasing to the eye.
A hole that takes a real golf shot to get it close and make birdie.
“It’s not about length,” Palmer told me standing behind the 8th green. “We can stretch it to 74-hundred yards but I want it to be risk/reward. I want it to be a challenge but not impossible.”
They’ve made changes strategically, moving bunkers out of the range for regular play and right in the spot Tour players are trying to hit it to. Suffice to say, I liked everything about it even though I didn’t play very well. It’s playable but with a big, championship course feel.
Palmer hosted a get together afterwards and talked about how he got involved with Bay Hill (“I tried to buy it after playing in an exhibition in 1965. We closed in 1974”), his first birdie on the new course (“number two”) How Bay Hill had changed (“I love Disney but if I had my druthers, it never would have come”) and his trip to Washington the following day to accept the Congressional Gold Medal (“I think I’ll go.”)
Politics aside, Palmer said one of the great joys of his life has been his relationship with President Eisenhower and that he was never more honored than when he was asked to present Ike at the World Golf Hall of Fame induction in November.
He hears better than he used to, and is gracious as ever.
I asked him about his birthday celebration two weeks ago and he said, “I’m gad it’s over. I wish it was a few birthdays ago! Eighty’s not bad, it feels pretty good right now.”
“Eighty’s the new fifty,” I joked with “The King.”
“Let’s just say it is,” he responded with a sly smile.
I’m still learning from him.