By Peter Kessler
The Masters with Winnie
By the time I went to the Masters Tournament for the first time I knew Arnold and Winnie Palmer well. I’d had dinner at their homes; I’d walked Arnold’s Irish Setter King past Arnold’s grad school, played golf with Arnold enough to have lost a few hundred dollars to him.
Winnie and I walked the back nine at Augusta National as Arnold played while his adoring fans screamed his name and woman swooned and men cheered and boys called out “Arnie!” We talked about how Arnold had never packed for a trip, had never unpacked. We talked about his dad’s temper, about Arnold’s putter collection.
As we walked the final hole I had trouble catching my breath and Winned started laughing at me. I couldn’t figure it out. Finally Winnie told me we were walking straight uphill. And so we were.
That’s one of the things you can’t see on television. Augusta National is built on the side of a hill and the final hole plays straight up to the top of it. The other thing about the course is that the greens are smaller than you expect and much more undulating.
When we got to the top of the hill Winnie told me to bring Arnold to her under the big oak tree behind the clubhouse after he signed his scorecard.
I waited behind the ropes for Arnold to leave the scorer’s tent and hoped he would spot me. He did. And then he walked up to me and put an arm around my shoulder and I did the same to him. He told me to bring him to Winnie under the big tree. We talked about golf and girls for a minute and then I released him to Winnie. I slipped into the crowd and let his fans have him again. His never ending army of fans and his loving general, Winnie.
Arnold always knows, always knew, what the audience wanted and needed from him. Even in moments of grief Arnold always has one eye on his fans to see if he’s delivering the goods.
After his wife Winnie died in late 1999, I didn’t see Arnold after the funeral until January of 2000 when we did a television show for the Golf Channel. If you hadn’t seen a friend since a loved one of theirs passed away the first thing you would say was “I’m sorry for your loss.” And that’s exactly what I said to Arnold and the only difference from normal life of course was that this was on live television.
I knew Arnold might have trouble speaking or catching his breath and that I might have to buy him some time. He began to cry. He couldn’t speak. He held up his hand as if to say,” no more, not yet, I’m not ready.”
So I reminded him that when Winnie came to the studio to watch our shows she would knit, she would write letters, she would read books, she would do anything but pay attention to anything we were doing or saying. Hundreds of thousands of people were sitting at home listening to every word Arnold had to say and there was his wife Winnie sitting fifteen feet away bored and looking at her watch.
Arnie recovered and the show went along just as I had hoped thanks to him and his great stories and his laugh and his twinkling eyes
When the segment ended and it was time to go to a commercial break I leaned over and whispered in his ear. I asked him if he was ok. He leaned in close and whispered back. “This is what they wanted,” he said.
He always knew he was on stage. He always knew his lines, he always got them right. He always knew how to deliver them, no matter what was going on. This month as we celebrate his 80th birthday it’s our turn to get it right for him, to say the things he needs and deserves to hear. Happy birthday, Arnie.