Turning Point: Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. Amateur changed Arnold Palmer’s career path, and golf was never the same again
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May 9, 2014 issue of Golfweek.
ORLANDO, Fla. – He was a 24-year-old paint salesman living in Cleveland, just seven months removed from a three-year stint in the Coast Guard. This was before his army of adoring fans, before his patented charges, and before he made golf cool.
Arnold Palmer, the son of a greenkeeper, entered the national sporting consciousness at the 1954 U.S. Amateur by defeating Robert Sweeny, 1 up, at the Country Club of Detroit.
Ask him to recount his earliest glory days and Palmer has been known to reach for a black hardcover copy of a 64-page book detailing the significance of this triumph. The cursive lettering of the title, written in gold-leaf, says it all: “The Turning Point.”
“That’s what it was in my life,” Palmer says all these years later seated in his office above the locker room at Bay Hill Club. “It gave me the confidence that I was ready to turn professional and play the PGA Tour.”
One year later, Palmer won the first of his 62 Tour titles and began to usher in golf’s modern era. But at the 54th U.S. Amateur, Palmer, who was as slender as wire and strong as cable, was a dark horse among the 1,278 entries that included Billy Jo Patton, Frank Stranahan, and Harvie Ward. Even that week, Palmer injected excitement into the championship with his high-wire act. Jimmy Gill, Palmer’s 16-year-old caddie, recalled the stir of fascination that Palmer’s go-for-broke style caused.
“If he missed the shot, he knew he would make it up later,” Gill said. “He had something about him. That walk of his, the way he attacked the ball.”
Sixty years later, Arnold Palmer holds a photo of himself holding the 1954 U. S. Amateur trophy. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/GOLFWEEK)
Palmer survived a daunting gantlet of foes on a par-70 course that had been stretched for the competition to 6,875 yards by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Palmer kidded USGA officials that they must have wanted him out of the tournament early. He edged Frank Strafaci, a seven-time Met (N.Y.) amateur champion, and John Veghte, a Florida State golfer, 1 up, in the first two rounds. Then in the fifth round, just to reach the quarterfinals, Palmer faced Stranahan. “Nemesis is a good word to describe our relationship on the course,” Palmer said.
Indeed, Stranahan, 32, had Palmer’s number. Previously, he smoked Palmer 12 and 11, in the 36-hole semifinal at the North and South Amateur and at the 1950 Amateur by a 4- and-3 margin. This time Palmer settled things, 3 and 1. As the golfers walked off the green, Stranahan said to Palmer, “That’s it. I’m turning pro tomorrow.”
Next, Palmer faced Don Cherry, the 1953 Canadian Amateur champ and a crooner, who had performed the night before at the nearby Dakota Inn. As Jimmy Demaret once said to him, “Don, the golfers say you’re a singer and the singers say you’re a golfer. So what the hell are you?” On this occasion he was another tough out for Palmer. Cherry held a 2-up lead with seven holes to go but lost his rhythm and the match, 1 up. Afterward, Palmer phoned his parents in Latrobe, Pa., to tell them he had reached the 36-hole semifinal. They hopped into their car and drove eight hours to be there.
“That meant more to me than you can imagine,” Palmer said.
Arnold Palmer watches flight of his tee shot on first hole at The Country Club, June 20, 1963 in Brookline, Mass., at start of the 1963 USGA Open.
His parents arrived in time to see the longest semifinal match in the history of the Amateur at the time. Palmer had defeated Ed Meister, a 38-year-old magazine publisher, in the Ohio Amateur just a few weeks earlier. The rematch was a seesaw affair in which Meister and Palmer traded the lead on seven occasions. All square on the 36th hole, Palmer overshot the green and faced looming disaster. Never fear because Palmer floated a sand wedge that halted within 5 feet of the hole. How good was it? The club placed a plaque on the spot where the ball lay buried and Palmer called it “the shot of my tournament.” Still, he crouched over a touchy, downhill slider in his pigeon-toed stance needing to make the putt to force extra holes.
“If I had missed it, I’d be gone,” Palmer said. “Who knows what would have happened in my life? I probably would have continued on playing amateur golf, and then I don’t know.”
But Palmer sank the putt, and the match continued at the first hole, where Meister had a 4-foot putt for victory. Did Palmer think his run was over?
“I never think that way,” Palmer said. “If he had had me, we wouldn’t be talking here now.”
On the third extra hole, Palmer closed out the match, muscling a 300-yard drive, reaching the par 5 in two and making birdie. That set up Palmer against Sweeny, the 1937 British Amateur champion, in the final.
“To look at us side by side,” Palmer wrote in “A Golfer’s Life,” “you might well have thought we hailed from different galaxies.”
Sweeny, 43, was a millionaire investment banker, the quintessential American playboy splitting time between Palm Beach, Fla., New York, and London. As a member at Seminole Golf Club, Sweeny played matches with Ben Hogan each winter as the future Hall of Famer tuned up for the Masters, and famously offered Hogan a stroke per side.
Thanks to a red-hot putter, Sweeny jumped out to an early 3-up lead on Palmer. As they departed the fourth green, Sweeny threw an arm around Palmer’s shoulder and, attempting to lighten the mood, said to him, “You can be sure of one thing: I can’t go on like this much longer.”
Palmer pulled ahead at the 32nd hole, stretched the lead to 2 up a hole later but 3-putted the 35th hole to prolong the match. When Sweeny’s drive at the last disappeared into the trees and thick rough right, he couldn’t recover and conceded the match on the green. Moments later, James D. Standish Jr., the tournament’s general chairman, gave the signal and a 12-piece brass band located on the clubhouse terrace played “Hail to the Chief.”
Tears streamed down the face of Palmer’s mother, Doris, and he hugged her. “Where’s Pap?” Palmer asked. Deacon Palmer was lingering by the scoreboard. Six decades later, Palmer still remembers his father’s long level gaze and the way his voice went soft as he mouthed these words: “You did pretty good, boy.”
Palmer’s victory set a chain of events in motion. Instead of returning to selling paint – “That might have ruined my life if I had been any good at it,” he said – Palmer played the next week in bandleader Fred Waring’s invitational, the Waite Memorial, in Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, Pa. His boss gave him time off to play the tournament only because he’d won the Amateur. There, Palmer met Winifred Walzer, who would become his wife of 45 years until her death in 1999.
“I thought she was a rich socialite and that if I married her, I’d just be able to play golf all the time. She thought I was a rich, young executive that could give her the lifestyle she wanted. We were both wrong,” Palmer wrote in “The Turning Point.”
Soon, the young couple were engaged. Almost three months after the championship on Nov. 17, 1954, Palmer announced his intentions to turn pro. “I can’t overlook my life ambition to follow in the footsteps of my father,” Palmer wrote to the USGA. “We both have counted on this since I first started playing golf 14 years ago. My good fortune in competition this year indicates it is time to turn to my chosen profession.”
A day later, he signed an endorsement contract with Wilson Sporting Goods for $5,000 plus a $2,000 signing bonus. Palmer heeded the advice of his father. “Go and play the way you know how and you’ll be all right,” he said.
The next spring, Palmer made his debut at the Masters, where soldiers from Fort Gordon in Augusta discovered an American original, and golf would never be the same.