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Arnie and Tiger: Memorable moments between two legends of the game

13 Min Read

Long Form

The meetings between two of golf’s greatest players – born 46 years apart -- were always memorable

    Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR

    Neither man could quite grasp the logic to this storyline that was circulating in the spring of 2001. Something about “a slump.” But how they handled the discussion spoke volumes about where they stood in life.

    For Arnold Palmer, then 71 and totally in command with all media, any suggestion that Tiger Woods was in the throes of a tailspin was worth a playful reply. “I don’t think it’s hurting Tiger that much that he has not won,” said Palmer, knowing that it had only been five months since Woods’ most recent victory.

    “If he stands in the food line, I’ll help him.”

    Woods, then 25, was still feeling his way through the media landscape. The spotlight, he was accustomed to; it was a byproduct of his uncanny skill set. But the scrutiny? It put him on the defensive.

    “It’s only been, what, six tournaments – or something like that where I haven’t won this year,” said Woods before the start of that year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. For the record, he had failed to win the final three tournaments at the end of 2000 and the first five to start 2001. But given that he had already put up an eight-win season in 1999 and a nine-win campaign in 2000, Woods was clearly being held to a higher standard.

    Woods seemed unsettled by it.

    “It’s annoying,” he said, “because ... if you think that way, then you really don’t understand the game of golf.”

    Palmer, addressing virtually the same crew of reporters in a separate gathering, seemed to agree with Woods about the silliness of this slump talk. But in poking fun at the media, he offered the brilliant insight of a legend who had been around the game parts of six decades.

    “The media looks for an opportunity like this to talk about a slump,” said Palmer, laughing. But it was followed by a warning: “Tiger’s in a slump? He may win the next six tournaments he plays, too.”

    There was a smile on his face and a hint of prophecy to his words. That’s because Woods won at Bay Hill a few days later, then THE PLAYERS Championship, and he made it three in a row with a historic triumph at the Masters (he became the first player to ever win four consecutive major championships). After finishing T-3 at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Woods won the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide.

    Not quite the six in a row that Palmer threw out there, but four out of five surely put an end to talk of a slump. At the same time, it further cemented the kinship between Palmer and Woods.

    Born nearly a half-century apart, raised in contrasting parts of the country, and products of different cultural backgrounds, Palmer and Woods shared a common thread – their love of golf and their brilliance at it – that in many ways made them a pairing we could not get enough of.

    When they first met

    Woods’ life had already afforded a national TV visit alongside Bob Hope and Jimmy Stewart, but a middle-of-summer visit to Orlando, Florida, in 1991 earned him something even more special -- his first introduction to the legendary Arnold Palmer, whose Bay Hill Club & Lodge was hosting the U.S. Junior Amateur.

    “He was handing out some medals to guys that have played in three Juniors and there are only a handful of guys that had done that,” Woods recalled to reporters a few years ago. “(Palmer) was giving those guys medals and I said, ‘I’d like to one day play in as many Juniors as that.”

    To say he fulfilled his dream is an understatement. Woods not only played in three U.S. Juniors, he won all three. What set it in motion was his demolition of the field at Bay Hill; at 15, he was co-medalist with rounds of 70-70, then marched through five foes by solid margins (8 and 7; 5 and 3; 2-up; 2-up; 5 and 4) before winning his first national championship on the first extra hole against Brad Zwetschke.

    Sweet as that was, meeting the host took it to another level.

    Palmer, who would miss most of that U.S. Junior Amateur to compete in the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills, recalled it as a favorable impression. “I liked the kid and his father, Earl, right away,” he said in “A Life Well Played: My Stories,” Palmer’s book written with help from Dave Shedloski.

    While neither Palmer nor Woods would have been surprised had you told them they’d cross paths again, neither could have envisioned to what extent they’d be connected. The times they were together were not frequent, but they offered glimpses into their character.

    Respect and support

    In September of 2019, on what would have been Palmer’s 90th birthday (he passed away in 2016), Woods told Steve DiMeglio of USA Today: “Arnold meant everything to golf. Are you kidding me? I mean, without his charisma, without his personality in conjunction with TV, it was just the perfect symbiotic growth. You finally had someone who had this charisma and they’re capturing it on TV for the very first time.

    “Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold.”

    Though they were of different generations, Woods appreciated how Palmer never failed to have his back. Early on, that shined through.

    In his biography “A Golfer’s Life,” co-written by James Dodson, Palmer wrote: “I daresay, few of us could stand up to the scrutiny and sometimes mean-spirited reporting that certain charismatic modern players – John Daly and Tiger Woods come immediately to mind, in this respect – are subjected to.

    “Both of these gifted young men have had to grow up in full public view, as it were, barraged by constant psychoanalysis or criticism from sideline ‘experts’ who won’t grant them the benefit of being able to make mistakes and learn from them, as all young men must do.”

    Poignant snapshot

    Well-documented is how Woods tuned up for his dominating performance at the 1997 Masters by blitzing his home course at Isleworth in 59. But the day before that, Woods joined Alastair Johnson, a business associate with IMG and close friend of Palmer’s, for a little money game with Palmer at Bay Hill.

    Palmer was 67, Woods 21, the bet was $100, and when the young visitor from Isleworth won at the par-3 17th, the legend from Bay Hill scowled.

    Then, Palmer suggested they play the par-4 18th for another game. Woods accepted, naturally, and after both players drove safely into the fairway, Palmer hit his approach into the back bunker. Woods was safely on the green, his eyes fixated on Palmer’s preparation in the bunker.

    “I was standing next to Tiger and he was really enjoying watching Arnold grinding it out,” Johnson told reporters. “He said to me, ‘Arnold never gives up, does he?’”

    Dinner of red tape

    Several years earlier, the money figure involved in a Palmer-Woods meeting was even less. But it could have been so costly.

    It was October of 1995 and Palmer, then 66, was competing in the PGA TOUR Champions event, The Transamerica, at Silverado in Napa Valley, California. Since Woods, then a 19-year-old sophomore at Stanford, wasn’t too far away, the men were connected for dinner.

    “Cool,” said Woods. “I’ll go out to dinner with Arnold Palmer.”

    “He wanted to pick my brain about a range of golf-related topics, including the pros and cons of turning professional,” Palmer explained in “A Life Well Played: My Stories.” “I was delighted to oblige, and I picked up the dinner tab, naturally. It was the right thing to do as the elder person, and even though Tiger already was a two-time U.S. Amateur champion and a golfer of renown he was still a college kid.”

    It also set off whistles with Stanford coach Wally Goodwin, who knew it would violate NCAA rules. Silly stuff, accepting payment from outside the program, so Goodwin made Woods write a check for $25 to reimburse Palmer. But for years, it provided great fodder for laughs.

    Connected by Bay Hill

    Their affinity for this golf course not far from Walt Disney World was wired differently. Palmer, of course, owned it. He lived there, so did many of his friends, and virtually every winter day he could be found either playing or hitting balls. The money games were legendary; so, too, his passion to continually make improvements to the course.

    For Woods, it might have started out as purely business – a convenient place across town at which he could compete for PGA TOUR riches, put a shine on his resume, and continue his quest to demoralize his competition.

    But before long, Woods grew to embrace Bay Hill and Palmer’s hospitality because this is where so many important achievements were authored and where an icon’s warm support was generated. The first four wins at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard came swiftly and routinely – by four strokes in 2000, by one in 2001, by four in 2002, then by a whopping 11 in 2003.

    Then, the wins seemingly became tougher and carried more emotion. In 2008, Woods, hobbled by a sore knee, made a 25-foot birdie putt in the 72nd hole to win and got a warm embrace from Palmer. “He said he was proud of me, the way I played,” Woods recalled. “He just said, ‘It doesn’t surprise me you made the putt.’”

    A year later, the tournament represented Woods’ first win since having season-ending knee surgery following the 2008 U.S. Open. Again, it was a winning putt on the 72nd hole, again it was Palmer offering a hug. “What was it I told you last year?” Palmer said.

    The win at Bay Hill in 2012 produced tears, as it was Woods’ first PGA TOUR victory since 2009 and followed several down years due to personal issues. Palmer was not around to greet him that Sunday at the 18th green, having been taken to a hospital after a spike in his blood pressure following a reaction to new medicine. “Get well soon, Arnie,” Tiger later tweeted.

    One year later, Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard for the eighth time and returned to No. 1 in the world for the first time since 2010. You may recall the photo of the two on the 18th green that Sunday, Tiger cradling the trophy in his right arm with his left arm draped over Palmer’s shoulders … and Palmer laughing with glee after a Tiger comment only the two of them heard.

    “Last year was scary for all of us,” Woods said afterwards. “He wasn’t feeling well, had to be rushed to the hospital, so I gave him some pretty good needling about that this year.”

    Asked specifically what he said to Palmer, Woods was coy. “I can't say it here, but it was funny, really funny, actually,” he replied. Then just for emphasis, he added, “Really funny.”

    Emotionally, the wins were massive. Personally, the support from Palmer always was a remedy for the tough stretches; the man had his back.

    “I think that those of us who know Tiger, know that somewhere along the way, there are going to be some hitches,” Palmer said when asked about Woods in 2005, the year when he turned 30 and seemed to be facing brutal media scrutiny. But as he had done a few years earlier, Palmer warned reporters about brushing Woods aside.

    “The things that can happen (going forward) could be the absolute best years of his life.”

    A moment to savor

    Before Woods would take the golf world by storm with a 12-stroke victory in the Masters at the age of 21, the biggest story in the game was Palmer having surgery for prostate cancer in January of 1997. At 67, Palmer was buoyant and insisted he’d recover in time for his annual tournament at Bay Hill.

    Sure enough, there was Palmer, hitting balls on the range when Woods -- then just three wins into his career -- stopped. He folded his arms and asked a reporter to hold off on questions for a minute.

    “I just want to see how he swings,” said Woods to Larry Dorman of The New York Times. “I mean, Arnold Palmer. Man. He’s unbelievable.”

    Woods remained stoic, stayed fixated on Palmer’s every move, and seemed to nod when he realized the legend was getting loose. Finally, a solid strike by Palmer, and Dorman reported beautifully:

    The ball rose like a jet at takeoff, straight, high and far. Palmer wheeled around, grinning at Woods, who was grinning back. “Look out, Tiger!” Palmer roared, and the two golfers laughed.

    Just one year earlier

    What has been widely reported is the quote from Jack Nicklaus, following a nine-hole practice round at the 1996 Masters with Palmer, 66, and Woods, 20. Nicklaus, then 56, said: “Arnold and I both agreed that you could take his Masters (four) and my Masters (six) and add them together and this kid should win more than that. This kid is the most fundamentally sound golfer I’ve ever seen at almost any age.”

    Etched into golf folklore, for good or bad. Doesn’t matter.

    What puts more flavor into it is what took place during the nine-hole match. Vintage Palmer, as reported by Tom Callahan in his book, “In Search of Tiger.”

    They played the back nine and Woods, shockingly, hit a poor drive at the par-5 13th. Popped it up so bad he was hitting his second shot first. He grabbed an iron and Callahan reported that Palmer turned to Nicklaus and said, “He’s laying up.”

    Laughed Nicklaus: “Oh, Arnie, he’s not.”

    No shock, but Nicklaus was right; Woods reached the green with an iron.

    Callahan, a brilliant writer and savvy reporter, told Nicklaus that he loved the story, then added, “I think of that as the moment Arnold realized his class had graduated.”

    And Nicklaus, reported Callahan, said: “My class has graduated, too.”

    But Woods offered the punchline to that nine-hole trip that encapsulates Palmer beautifully. “He wanted to play Skins,” Woods said. “Well, I have no money. Arnie said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll just owe us at the end.”

    Woods said the match was tied going up the 19th when “Arnie makes some BS birdie to take all the Skins. Jack is frustrated with it. I’m ticked, as well.”

    Circling back

    It was three years after they had met for the first time and as host of his own tournament, Palmer had the wherewithal to extend an invitation to anyone he wanted. So, the 1994 Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard included the 18-year-old Woods, then a senior at Western High School in Anaheim, California.

    For folks who questioned the logic of letting Woods go, Western coach Don Crosby laughed. “He missed a week last year, which is no big deal. He’ll come back next week fired up.”

    Crosby knew of what he spoke. Woods came home from Florida and shot under par for nine holes to lead Western to a win over Irvine. A few days later, he was in British Columbia where he made two eagles and six birdies in a 1-under 143 effort to win a 36-hole tournament.

    As for how he fared at Bay Hill in 1994? He was just a kid, right? And the guy who had extended the invite, he was an icon at the golden age of 64, right? So, consider this beautiful morsel: They shot the same score Thursday. Which was? Doesn’t matter. Only the headline does: Palmer and Woods tied after Round 1.

    Beautiful, no? And fitting, for they seemingly remained joined together on so many occasions for years to come.

    Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.