Golf owes Arnold Palmer a great deal, but his legacy is no more keenly felt than in the Open Championship rather than the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
If not for Palmer, the game’s oldest major might not be held in such great esteem as it is now. Palmer breathed new life into the tournament, ensuring it remained a must play for generations of Americans who followed him.
Although Sam Snead won the 1946 Open Championship and Ben Hogan triumphed in 1953, American involvement in the post war years was almost non-existent. Palmer made his peers see the light.
In 1960, Palmer won the Masters and US Open and had his eyes on the grand slam. The Open Championship’s 100th anniversary was held over the Old Course at St Andrews (pictured) that year. What better stage for the game’s marquee name to reveals his talents to British golf fans?
Palmer made the trip and finished second to Kel Nagle. He returned in 1961 and won at Royal Birkdale, and defended his championship the following year at Royal Troon. His name on the old claret jug was a massive influence on other leading Americans.
“The R&A and the Open Championship will forever remember Arnold for coming over in 1960, and then winning in 1961 and 62,” former R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said.
“It was still in the immediate post war era and many Americans didn’t come over. Hogan had won in 1953 obviously, but Arnold came and brought the others with him.
“It was his decision to come and play that persuaded other top Americans to see the Open Championship as a true major in its own right. He rejuvenated the championship.”
Palmer couldn’t make the trip to St Andrews for the 1964 Open, but it didn’t stop him playing a huge part in the tournament.
“He persuaded Tony Lema to come in 1964,” Dawson said. “Lema even used Arnold’s regular Open caddie, Tip Anderson, and won. So even when Arnold wasn’t there, he had an influence on the championship.”
Too many Americans to name have won in the intervening years since Palmer’s 1960 appearance. Dawson concedes they might not have their names etched on the old claret jug if not for Palmer’s pilgrimage.
“We can’t really say where the Open Championship would be if Arnold hadn’t decided to play in 1960, and continued to support it the way he did. There’s every chance it might not have the same prestige.”
As R&A chief executive for 16 years, Dawson had many chances to meet Palmer.
“My first impression of him never changed. He was charming, warm, humorous, immediately likeable, always had time to talk to you. He was very down to earth with no airs or graces. He had star quality, not just in golf but in life too.”
Dawson spoke for all British golf fans when he added:
“The Open owes Arnold Palmer a great debt.”
Palmer once said:
“Thank God for the game of Golf.”
If the Open Championship could talk it would say:
“Thank God for Arnold Palmer.”