The 'King' of golf wants to reign on a young parade

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comOctober 20, 2011 

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This is the story of the old man and the tee.

Reluctantly filling the role of the old man is Arnold Palmer, who was on Hilton Head Island on Thursday to celebrate the reopening of the Wexford Plantation golf course as an Arnold Palmer Signature Course.

Palmer, 82, was only a few weeks past 40 when he was sainted on Hilton Head. In 1969, he muscled the inaugural Heritage golf tournament title from Richard Crawford and Bert Yancey to help make Hilton Head a household name.

Today, Palmer remains more than a leading figure in golf. He is golf. Between 37-minute flights to and from Orlando on his Cessna Citation X jet, Palmer's chatty clinic on Wexford's new practice range and his ceremonial opening tee shot attracted enough media to cover a good-sized hurricane.

Mayor Drew Laughlin proclaimed it Arnold Palmer Day. VanLandingham Rotary Club volunteers served him fresh popcorn from their restored antique wagon. Chris Wycoff won a prize when "the King's" ceremonial tee shot (after a mulligan) landed closest to a little flag he'd placed in the first fairway. Flags were sold to members for $5, and Wexford Club president Bob Grassi gave the proceeds -- $1,610 -- to Palmer for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando.

Palmer made a number of jokes about his age. He said he keeps asking his friend Jack Nicklaus, "Why don't you move the senior tees up?"

He said Nicklaus responded with an offer for an outing with their wives.

"He said, 'Hey, Arn. Why don't you bring Kit down, and Barb and I will take you fishing.' "

Palmer said he exercises -- mostly stretches -- to accommodate age. He's lengthened his driver shaft to almost 48 inches.

But he seemed more invigorated by talking about youth than age.

At one point during his clinic, Palmer leaned over to speak to two young children. Past Wexford club president Sue Minter told me more than 120 children live in the community of 469 families. She said parents find it attractive because of its safety and outdoor opportunities. "The children live their lives outdoors," she said.

Palmer started his great outdoor game at age 2 in much more humble surroundings. "I had to go to work with my dad because my mother had just had a little girl and she couldn't watch us both," he said. His father, a golf pro, shortened some wooden shafts, wrapped leather around them, and by the time Palmer was 6, he was playing golf every day.

Now he relishes seeing his grandsons and granddaughter playing golf. He said lessons learned from his father went beyond the golf swing, to an approach on life.

"When I was wrong, he let me know I was wrong," Palmer said.

The old man on the tee wishes more children were there to learn its lessons.

"It's such a clean environment," he said. "It's such a clean way to live."

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