King of Swing

Perpetually youthful Arnold Palmer is an old-fashioned guy. He has a thing about men not wearing hats indoors, especially at the dining table. And about finding loose change. A couple of months ago, he was playing a round at Bay Hill, the pine-fringed golf course he owns in Orlando, when he spotted something shiny on the ground. “There was a quarter laying there,” says his friend Alan Pope, 34. “And he said, ‘Looky there, guys! Right in my pocket. I’m a quarter richer.’ ” Never mind that last year alone Palmer earned $18 million from his many business ventures. “If there’s a dime on the street, I pick it up,” he says. “I still have that conservative touch.”

It wasn’t conservatism, though, but his reckless, hell-for-leather style on the fairway that turned Palmer, 69, into one of the century’s most influential athletes. Today, Palmer, whose boyish charm perfectly suited him for the era of television sports, still reigns as golf’s wise and courtly monarch (his nickname is the King), a man admired as much for his rapport with fans—”Arnie’s army”—as for his 61 wins on the PGA Tour, including seven major championships. “Leaders of industry, political figures, the common man, they all regard Arnold as though he’s a higher being,” says CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz. “And yet he treats every one of them as though he is right at their level.”

Palmer relives his fabled career in a misty-eyed new autobiography, A Golfer’s Life, written with James Dodson. The book also delves into the athlete’s recent brushes with mortality. In early 1997, he underwent surgery and radiation treatments for prostate cancer; the procedures were successful, but Palmer—who looks strong and healthy—found it tough to come back from the operation. “You remember all the things you could do when you were whole,” he says, “and then, all of a sudden, you can’t do them.”

Then, last year, there was more bad news. Winnie Palmer, 65, his beloved wife of 44 years, was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer. She is responding well to treatment. “Winnie is tough,” says Palmer, who won’t discuss his family’s ordeal in detail. “She is starting to ride on my case a little harder for more quiet time, which she needs.”

Quiet time, however, is awfully hard to come by. Besides owning Bay Hill and the Latrobe Country Club—a scenic course in southwestern Pennsylvania where he learned to play—Palmer oversees a sprawling golf-related business empire, including companies that design golf courses and sell equipment. His net worth is an estimated $100 million. One of the most trusted pitchmen in America, he has endorsement deals with Cooper Tires and Pennzoil, among others. “He has good sense,” says Mark McCormack, Palmer’s agent since 1959. “He doesn’t believe in leveraging and loans and borrowing and all that kind of stuff.”

And then, of course, there is his most enduring passion: golf. Palmer likes to play a round nearly every day, on top of appearances in tournaments. “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around,” says pal Alan Pope, who loses his share of $25 side bets to his feisty friend. “He’s 69 years old, and he thinks he’s 25.”

Going for broke on the golf course has always been Palmer’s trademark. The son of the late Doris and Deke Palmer—a stoic and rigid man who was a golf pro in Latrobe—Palmer was brought up during the hard times of the Depression. “My dad taught me values that have hung with me and motivated me,” he says, “to appreciate this country and what it’s all about.” His father also put a golf club in his son’s hands when Arnie was only 3 years old. But the gifted Palmer did the rest, teaching himself an unorthodox corkscrew swing that was good enough to win several local tournaments before he signed up for a three-year hitch with the Coast Guard in 1951.

Driven in part by a desire to please his demanding father, Palmer charged to victory in the U.S. Amateur in 1954. (One of his golfing high points, Palmer recounts in his book, is his father saying, “You did pretty good, boy,” after that win.) Over the next 10 years, Palmer won four Masters titles, two British Opens and one U.S. Open, all with an engaging boldness that helped popularize an elitist sport and pave the way for today’s brash players. “He was what I wanted to be like,” says Tiger Woods. “The way he handles himself around people is extraordinary.”

These days, Palmer has cut back on his recreational golf to spend more time with Winnie. The couple, who have two daughters—Amy Saunders, 40, a homemaker in Orlando, and Peggy Wears, 43, a homemaker in Durham, N.C.—and six grandchildren, split their time between a penthouse condo apartment at Bay Hill and a hilltop house in Latrobe overlooking the picturesque course where Palmer first lunged at a golf ball. An aviation buff, Palmer also loves to take to the skies in his Cessna Citation X jet. All in all, he admits, “I’m in a coasting mode. I’m not pushing hard.”

That doesn’t mean he’s ready for the rocking chair. “I couldn’t just stop,” says Palmer. “That would be disaster for me. I like playing golf and talking to people. I have a lot I’d like to do.”

Including, it turns out, nailing another tournament. So what if he hasn’t won an event in 11 years? Palmer has his values, and he sticks to them. Don’t wear hats indoors. Pick up dropped coins. Set your sights high and work like heck to get there. “That isn’t likely,” Palmer says of winning again. “But it’s fun thinking about it anyway.”

Alex Tresniowski

Don Sider in Orlando

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