'A hell of a day'
The last of Arnold Palmer’s 62 TOUR wins came at the star-studded 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, a fitting scene for golf’s most charismatic star
January 17, 2017
By Jim McCabe, Special to PGATOUR.COM
Against a legacy of green jackets and Claret Jugs, a final-round charge at Cherry Hills and countless appearances in all corners of the globe, Arnold Palmer’s win at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic would hardly seem to resonate.
But, oh, how it meant everything to him.
“The sweetest ever,” Palmer said that February Sunday 44 years ago.
Sweeter than any of his four Masters? His two Open Championships? His historic 1960 U.S. Open? Truthfully, probably not – except that for all the emotions Palmer harbored in the early days of 1973, it’s understandable he would have expressed such joy after his final-round 3-under 69 at Bermuda Dunes to finish at 17-under 343.
On so many levels, it was memorable. Partly because of whom he edged by two strokes — the incomparable rival, Jack Nicklaus, and a 25-year-old desert juggernaut named Johnny Miller, who was months away from making U.S. Open history at Oakmont. Partly because it was his fifth win at “the Hope,” a five-day convergence of golf, showbiz celebrities, big business executives and politicians that seemingly was invented for the charismatic Palmer.
But most of all, because the 62nd and final win of Palmer’s storied PGA TOUR career was his first stroke-play triumph since the 1971 Westchester Classic, a drought of 30 stroke-play tournaments that encompassed his only winless season, 1972, between 1955-1973.
“I hope it’s not as long before my next win,” Palmer said to the assembled media that day.
Sadly, his wish did not come true.
Although he would go on to win 10 PGA TOUR Champions events after turning 50, Palmer would never record another victory on the regular TOUR, which is why, as we prepare for the first playing of the famed desert pro-am since the icon’s death in September, it’s worth re-living what happened in Palm Springs 44 years ago.
You would hardly have been smitten with Palmer’s chances at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. Not with the way the 43-year-old had been putting for a year, not with the way he had played in three tournaments prior, and certainly not with an opening 71 that was seven shots higher than Nicklaus’ first round.
Palmer and Nicklaus were together on the tournament’s eve to break ground on a golf course project they were co-designing (now Ironwood Country Club), but they were miles apart in Round 1 at Indian Wells.
In the Los Angeles Times, the great Jim Murray called Palmer and Nicklaus “the prime minister and emperor of golf,” but it didn’t appear as if they were competitors any more, at least not until Palmer outscored Nicklaus, 66-70, in the second round at Tamarisk Country Club.
That left Nicklaus at 134, three ahead of Palmer and a Monday qualifier named Allen Miller. Joked Miller: “What are all those unknowns doing up there with me?”
“The Hope” was competing for space in the L.A. Times with the legendary Steve Prefontaine, who beat Marty Liquori in the mile at the Times Indoor Games. But when Palmer shot a third-round 69 at La Quinta, he was at 206, just one behind the co-leaders, Nicklaus (71) and Allen Miller (68), so a buzz engulfed the desert golf community.
Palmer was thrilled, but so, too, was Bob Hope, who kidded that the key to Palmer’s great play was being free of his usual pro-am partner, Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Negotiations for a cease-fire in the Vietnam War demanded Agnew’s presence, though he offered this quip: “I think my not playing is part of the cease-fire.”
Jollity was a staple at “the Hope” and 1973 offered the usual array of celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro), sports stars (Al Kaline, John Hadl), and business executives (Oscar Mayer, Harold Florsheim). But the golf became a bit more serious in Round 4 of the five-round event when the Miller who posted a 63 at Tamarisk to tie the lead was Johnny, not Allen.
At 273, Miller was tied with Nicklaus, but in all due respect to these blondes, it was the graying Palmer who had everyone giddy. He was just one stroke back.
Had it not been for a double-bogey after driving it out-of-bounds at the par-4 11th, Palmer would have had the outright lead. “I’m encouraged, mostly because I’m making some putts,” Palmer said.
After four days, Palmer’s rotation of amateur partners had finished at a gaudy 52-under, so he received $275 for being low pro. Nice, but everyone from Palm Springs to Poughkeepsie hoped a bigger win was in store.
Yes, Bob Hope was host, but Arnold Palmer was sole proprietor.
It was not love at first sight, this relationship between Palmer and the great desert pro-am. As a PGA TOUR rookie in 1955, Palmer had not rated a spot into the Thunderbird Invitational, a select field of big names that would morph into the Palm Springs Golf Classic and then “The Hope.”
Palmer once joked that he watched the 1955 Thunderbird — with a field that included Byron Nelson, Jack Burke Jr., Jimmy Demaret and Peter Thomson — “from the highway,” as he was driving toward another Southern California tournament, the less-heralded Imperial Valley Open in Brawley. (He would finish tied for 17th.)
He wasn’t on the outside for long. A win midway through his rookie season assured him of a spot into the 1956 field at Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. Palmer, 26, tied for sixth, 10 strokes behind Demaret. The following year, he tied for 32nd while Demaret successfully defended his title by beating Ken Venturi and Mike Souchak in a playoff.
Venturi was victorious in 1958, while Demaret was runner-up, four shots back, in his quest for a three-peat.
The following year belonged to Palmer, who had “arrived” as a TOUR star with 10 wins, including the 1958 Masters. When he fired a final-round 62, a connection to desert golf was cemented. Demaret and Venturi, the winners of the past three Thunderbirds, tied for second, three shots behind Palmer.
“I always seemed to find my game there,” Palmer recalled in his autobiography with James Dodson, “A Golfer’s Life.”
When in 1960 the Thunderbird Invitational was re-packaged as the Palm Springs Golf Classic, it was as if it had been created just for Palmer.
“The expanded five-day format, the colorful mingling of entertainment industry folks and golf pros, the large and responsive galleries,” Palmer explained in his autobiography. “It was a very special event.”
Palmer had a soul mate in Hope, who also loved being with the people. Like Hope, Arnold also felt a kinship to politicians, especially strong, conservative ones like Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. When it was agreed that the Bob Hope Desert Classic would benefit the Eisenhower Medical Center, the tournament became even more special to Palmer.
“I was so in awe of the man,” Palmer wrote of Eisenhower, who once gave Palmer an oil painting he’d done of Gettysburg as a birthday present.
Palmer’s White House relationships went beyond President Eisenhower, however. Agnew was his frequent pro-am partner in Palm Springs and Palmer also played quite a bit with President Gerald Ford. Yet on one trip to play in the Hope, Palmer made a presidential visit that had nothing to do with golf. He was invited to a cabinet meeting to discuss a possible end to the Vietnam War.
Palmer and Hope were called to the Winter White House in San Clemente, California. When they arrived to meet President Nixon, there sat Vice President Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and other cabinet members.
“You could see the burden of (the war) was seriously weighing on him,” Palmer said of Nixon.
Suffice to say, no one else in the field was tuning up for the tournament at a Cabinet meeting, a testament to the sort of larger-than-life persona that Palmer possessed. It shone brightest in Palm Springs, where he was comfortable with the stars and eerily in command as a competitor.
“I thought I could win every time I played there,” Palmer once said. “The conditions were perfect, the galleries were fantastic, it was just a great place to play golf. I always felt if I didn’t win, there was something wrong with me and I had to straighten it out.”
He didn’t win every time he teed it up there, of course. It just seemed that he did.
Palmer, 30, had already won 13 times on TOUR when he arrived in Palm Springs for the first Palm Springs Desert Golf Classic 57 years ago.
But Palmer rose to national hero with that unforgettable 1960 season — a second Masters win, a thrilling charge at the U.S. Open — and that season started in the desert. With that victory, Palmer began to pour the foundation to his “Sportsman of the Year” campaign and his grip on the tournament.
Two years later, he won his second Palm Springs Golf Classic and 28th PGA TOUR title. Three behind Gene Littler through four rounds, “the slugger beat the swinger,” proclaimed the Associated Press story. Palmer finished with 69 to Littler’s 75.
The prize earned Palmer a check for $5,300 and, maybe more special, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Trophy.
Like it did in 1960, the ’62 triumph in Palm Springs would set in motion an eight-win campaign. It took him six years to win the Palm Springs party again.
Palmer lost the lead to Deane Beman, the future PGA TOUR Commissioner, after driving out-of-bounds at the 15th hole. Palmer’s Goliath-like strength came in handy at the par-5 18th, where he unleashed a mighty 3-wood from 260 yards to reach the green and set up a two-putt birdie to tie.
Greenside for the heroics at 18 were Hope, Eisenhower and California Gov. Ronald Reagan, all avid Palmer fans. Their favorite player was victorious on the second playoff hole after Beman missed the green and made bogey.
Three years later, Palmer, now 41, was feeling the wear and tear of his extensive travels. The previous year, 1970, had produced just one win — that being a National Four-Ball Championship with Nicklaus — so when the Hope got under way, Palmer hadn’t won a stroke-play event in 14 months, a virtual eternity for The King.
“I don’t care how many tournaments you’ve won, when you’re in a slump you want a win as badly as you wanted your first one,” Palmer said.
He had quit smoking a few months earlier, determined to rejuvenate his game. With vintage desert weather and enormous crowds in Sunday’s final round, Palmer built a three-stroke lead over a player referred to in newspaper stories as “long-haired Raymond Floyd.” But when the flamboyant Floyd, then 28, caught Palmer with a series of late birdies, the crowd favorite conceded a sense of resignation came over him.
“Here we go again,” Palmer said. “Everybody knows what a struggle it’s been.”
Much to the fans’ delight, magic struck. Though Floyd was closer with his approach (15 feet) into the first playoff hole, it was Palmer from 25 feet who converted for the win. Sudden death was sudden exhilaration.
“I haven’t felt this good in years,” Palmer said.
He experienced that feeling three more times in 1971, bringing Palmer to 61 career wins, but then came another lengthy dry stretch. This time, The King seemed to face his competitive mortality.
“I don’t like not winning a tournament, but it had to happen some time,” Palmer told AP’s Bob Green in early 1973. “It happened to (Ben) Hogan and it happened to (Sam) Snead.”
But what happened next was inexplicable and unexpected, or more accurately, another dose of “Hope.”
For a brief time on Saturday evening at the 1973 event, the celebration revolved around a very popular winner. Singer Andy Williams, who would play host to the PGA TOUR stop in San Diego one week later, was part of the winning amateur team.
But then it was time for a more compelling storyline: Golf’s most endearing figure was one off the lead. Palmer had made a few concessions to his 19 years on the PGA TOUR — he wore tinted glasses and said he was fighting it on the greens — but he was still the people’s choice.
So when Palmer birdied the par-5 first hole of the final round to pull even with Johnny Miller, and Nicklaus fell one back with a three-putt bogey, “Arnie’s Army” was officially re-enlisted and they rocked the Coachella Valley.
Another birdie at the fourth gave Palmer a lead he would not relinquish. Neither Nicklaus nor Miller could do better than 72, stymied by challenges they didn’t expect.
For Miller, it was a desert rarity — heavy and persistent rain. “I couldn’t keep my mind on playing, because I expected (officials) to stop play at any time,” Miller said.
For Nicklaus, paired with Palmer, it was the return of The King’s vocal supporters. “I guess after putting up with Arnie’s Army for 12 years, I’ll have to try and put up with it a few more,” he shrugged.
Miller and Nicklaus each stepped to the par-5 18th two behind Palmer. First, Miller would make his birdie, but in the next pairing Nicklaus grabbed everyone’s attention with a brilliant second shot to get a good look at eagle.
Palmer laid up, hit his third shot to 8 feet, then held his breath as Nicklaus rolled what looked like a perfect putt.
“I asked him, ‘What are you trying to do?’ ” Palmer said later. “He said, ‘Trying to beat you.’ ”
Writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sports editor Al Abrams described Nicklaus’ eagle try as missing “by a gnat’s earlobe.” Palmer conceded later that “Jack hit a super putt,” which left a mere tap-in birdie.
It meant that Palmer had two putts from 8 feet, but to prove that there was still some of that priceless flair, he needed just one. His bogey-free 69 meant more than his fans could have realized.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit there were times I had doubts about ever winning again,” Palmer said. “It’s always a necessity to win. If it isn’t, there isn’t any need to play.”
But play on, he did, for 19 more tournaments in 1973 and 94 others over the next five seasons. There were occasional flashes to give Palmer fans a thrill, but fewer and fewer top 10s were recorded and never another win.
The King’s legion of fans did not despair, however. He had left an endless string of memories. Surely, that final win at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic rated high.
Palmer wiped away precipitation on his glasses that Sunday 44 years ago in Palm Springs. Tears of joy, he said, brushing off suggestions they were owed to the weather.
“I thought it was a hell of a day, really,” Palmer said with a smile. “The sun shone all day.”
Arnold Palmer: A sports icon