‘The King’ left an imprint on Maryland’s golf community
Allen Wronowski’s birthday was approaching and his father knew exactly what to get the Baltimore teenager who aspired to be a golf professional: tickets to an upcoming exhibition and clinic with the game’s two biggest stars.
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus came to Pine Ridge Golf Course on a hot August day in 1972 to raise money for the Golfers’ Charitable Association, a local organization.
“The place was packed…there were over 1,000 people,” Wronowski recalled Monday, the day after the Palmer died at age 87. “Everybody was just awed.”
The exhibition itself took more than four hours, largely due to Palmer’s connection to his fans.
“Just like all the commentary [after his death], he was walking, smiling at the crowd, signing any autograph anybody asked for. He was so charismatic,” Wronowski said. “He did a lot for the game and the area.”
Wronowski said that as big a star as Nicklaus had become, Palmer’s longtime rival was mainly a wingman at Pine Ridge that summer afternoon.
“Jack was OK, he was somewhat personable, but Arnold just lit it up. You knew that Arnold was there more than Jack,” said Wronowski, who would eventually become director of golf at Hillendale Golf Club for more than three decades and, more recently, the president of the PGA of America.
Palmer, “The King,” had a thing for Baltimore. At 23 he notched his third professional win in the 1956 Eastern Invitational Open at Mount Pleasant. His last public appearance in the city is believed to be five years ago for a Maryland Special Olympics fundraiser at Martin’s West.
“I love Baltimore,” Palmer said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun prior to a 2011 event called “The 19th hole: An Intimate Evening with Arnold Palmer and Jim Nantz” that raised money for the Special Olympics. “I think it’s one of the great cities in America. I’m big on the seafood.”
According to local public relations executive David Nevins, Baltimore was also the birthplace of one of America’s favorite soft drinks – the iced tealemonade combo named after the legendary golfer. Versions of the drink’s origin vary though, with Palmer saying on his website and in an ESPN documentary that he and his wife created the drink at home, and that he once requested the mix in Palm Springs, Calif., and a nearby woman asked for “an Arnold Palmer.”
Nevins, however, said Palmer told him firsthand that it happened during a celebratory lunch he had with fellow pro Doug Ford after winning the tournament at Mount Pleasant.
“When he won the tournament that morning, he and Doug Ford went to a local pub and they each asked for an iced tea.” Nevins said Monday. “The waitress had two pitchers and she pours Doug’s first and then she pours Arnie’s, and as half his glass filled, she emptied the pitcher.”
Palmer, as the story goes, asked the waitress what was in the other pitcher.
“She said, ‘That’s lemonade,’ and he said, ‘That sounds good, just fill the glass up with lemonade’, which she did,” Nevins said. “The people at the next table said to him, ‘Aren’t you Arnold Palmer, didn’t you just win the golf tournament?’” Palmer introduced himself and Ford. “She asked what he was drinking, and he said, ‘Half iced tea and half lemonade,’ and she said ‘That sounds, great, what do you call it?’ ” Nevins said. “Arnie said, ‘It doesn’t have a name, it’s just that she ran out of iced tea when she was pouring it.’ The woman said, ‘I’m going to order the same thing and call it “The Arnold Palmer.’ ” From that day on, it caught fire.”
Palmer was so popular that even a drink named after him has its own folk tales.
Though the story of the drink’s name has been muddled over the years, the one about Palmer’s victory in Baltimore has only one version. Growing up in the Northwood neighborhood where Mount Pleasant is located, Gregg Taylor had heard stories about Palmer winning there 60 years ago after hitting his first tee shot went out of bounds onto Hillen Road.
There is a photo of Palmer accepting the first prize check for $3,000 and a trophy from Mayor Thomas D’Alesandro Jr. – as well as a replica of the trophy – in the pro shop at Mount Pleasant. There is also a photo of Palmer taken a decade ago, on the 50th anniversary of the victory.
“Though most who grew up playing the course are aware of Palmer’s connection to the course,” Taylor, now Mount Pleasant’s assistant manager, said Monday, “we get out-of-towners, and when they see the pictures here, they’ll ask about it.”
Along with playing in the Eastern Open, Palmer played a couple of times in what was then the Senior Tour at Hobbit’s Glen Golf Club in Columbia and Hayfields Country Club in Cockeysville.
Ray Dau, who served as the tournament chairman for five years for the two senior events, recalled picking up Palmer and his assistant, Doc Giffin, at a private airport near BWI before the 1998 State Farm Classic.
It had been Palmer’s first tournament in Arnold Palmer, right, looks on as Jack Nicklaus holes a short putt during a charity exhibition at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Baltimore in August 1972. Baltimore in 40 years.
“It was July 4th weekend and it was going to be something like 100 degrees, so I picked him up in a Cadillac and had the temperature at 68,” Dau said Monday. “He was sitting in the front seat and he kept turning around and saying, ‘Doc, do you feel a draft?’ ”
It turned out that during Palmer’s last appearance in Baltimore, he had to withdraw after shooting an opening round 69 when his back stiffened up driving in the car of George Bayer, another player. He attributed his long bout with back problems to that cranked up air conditioner in Bayer’s car.
“When he told that story, I turned off the air conditioner for the last 15 minutes of the ride,” Dau said. “We were all sweating bullets.”
The day of the pro-am, Dau said a big crowd had gathered to watch Palmer tee off
“All the volunteers were wearing red, white and blue,” Dau said. “After he hits his ball, there’s a sea of red, white and blue walking away with him. All the volunteers left their posts. We had to have a meeting that night telling the committee chairman, telling them to stay, but they said, ‘Hey I’m following “The King.” ”
Caves Valley director of golf Dennis Satyshur recalled a visit by Palmer at the then brand-new club in Owings Mills in 1992 to play a round with President George H.W. Bush and Reg Murphy, then the publisher of the Baltimore Sun and a member at the club.
“He was very, very respectable to President Bush, he called him ‘Mr. President,’” Satyshur said Monday. “He never hit before him, the president would walk first. I just found that so gentlemanly, so thoughtful. He was Arnold Palmer, but when he was with the president, the president was ‘The Man.’ ”
Coleman Plecker, a longtime pro at several clubs in Maryland, had some conversations with Palmer over the years.
A memorable one took place after Plecker, then the pro at Eagle’s Nest in Baltimore County, had qualified for his first PGA Tour event at the 1980 Kemper Open. When he arrived in the locker room at Congressional Country Club, Plecker found his locker between those assigned to Palmer and Gary Player.
“He was my whole inspiration for playing golf,” Plecker, 70, said Monday. “He was it.”
The day before the tournament began, Plecker met his idol.
“He wished me good luck,” Plecker said. “Everything he did seemed sincere. He made you feel like you were the only person there.”
Dau recalled Palmer’s public appearance five years ago for the Special Olympics Maryland dinner in Baltimore, where Palmer presented Dau with an achievement award for the money the longtime Hillendale member had raised for the organization over the years.
“I spent a couple of hours with him upstairs before the event,” Dau said. “He was just everyman’s man. He looked you in the eye and you thought he was your best friend.”
Ray Dau, right, poses with Arnold Palmer during a news conference before a Special Olympics event five years ago. It is believed to have been Palmer’s last appearance in Baltimore.