Thursday, July 9, 2009

Arnold Palmer and Me

Of course, there is no "Arnold and Me," but the King is back in Minnesota this week as the Senior Tour - oh, sorry, "Champions Tour" - rolls through Minnesota. A few months shy of 80, he remains a giant in the golf world, the business world and, heck, the world. And every time I see him come through town, I'm reminded of one of the most traumatic events of my life, in a brief moment when Arnie and I intersected in Chaska, Minnesota.

It was June of 1970, and 13-year-old Tim Droogsma was very excited. I had been playing golf since I was 8 or 9, and Arnold Palmer immediately became my hero. I watched him on TV whenever I could, I read everything I could get my hands on about him and even emulated that knock-kneed putting stance on the greens. My jr. high library had a Palmer biography written by his business agent, Mark McCormick, and I read it over and over, soaking up every little detail.

I knew how Arnie had grown up as the son of a club pro, how he had once thrown a club in a junior tournament and was told by his father "If you ever throw another club, you'll never play tournament golf again." I knew the stories behind his four Masters wins, the 30 he shot on the front nine to help win the 1960 U.S. Open, the tragedy of the 1966 U.S. Open, his love of airplanes, his various business ventures. I was a total Palmer junkie, ready to argue all night with anyone who dared to insist that Jack Nicklaus was better.

And now, in the summer of 1970, my hero was coming to Minnesota. The U.S. Open was at Hazeltine, the first major for the young course, and I put an elaborate plan in place so that I could see my hero up close. I mowed lawns to earn the money for a ticket. I knew that getting there wouldn't be easy, since we lived in Fridley (a northern suburb) and my dad worked near South St. Paul. Chaska - out beyond the western suburbs - wasn't exactly convenient.

But I mowed a few more lawns, and offered my parents gas money if mom would take dad to work, then take me to Chaska, then come back and get me that evening. They agreed, in part - I think - because they couldn't believe I was actually out finding work to make it all happen, and they wanted to reward this unusual behavior.

So I got a ticket for Friday, the second day of the Open. Mom got me there around 8:30 and said she would be back at 7:00 to get me. I went right to the driving range, where I figured Palmer would be before his tee time. Good call.

There, just 30 or 40 feet from me, was my hero, smashing balls down the range and getting ready for his round. This was the first pro golf tournament I had ever seen, but the other 149 golfers didn't really exist for me; My only goal of the day was to get Arnold Palmer's autograph.

In retrospect, there was an amazing collection of talent on the course that day: Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Tony Jacklin (who had won the British Open the year before, and would win this tournament), Gary Player, Sam Snead, Ben Crenshaw (still an amateur), Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Chi Chi Rodriguez and others. But I was only there to see Palmer.

He finished his work on the driving range, and started up the hill towards the 1st tee. Today you wouldn't get near a player making this walk unless he chose to stroll along the ropes, but in 1970, security was pretty much non-existent. And so a crowd of us surrounded Arnie, making our way up the hill, shoving programs and pieces of paper in front of him, hoping for that signature.

I immediately fell a little behind the crowd and hustled up to try to get into position. With everyone trying to stay in front of him, I decided to get in close behind him and try to somehow get his attention. I was getting close, and then it happened: I stepped on his heel.

A total accident, of couse, and it was just a little nip, but there was no doubt my foot had made contact with his. And in case I had any doubts, the King made them go away by looking over his shoulder and saying "Off the heel, kid."

I froze, traumatized. The crowd kept moving and I just stood there. My idol had actually spoken to me, but the words were "Off the heel, kid." I was devastated. Here was my hero, trying to win the U.S. Open, and I had stepped on his heel.

I spent the rest of the day following him around the course and saw almost every one of the 74 shots he took that day. And as he left the 18th green, there might have been another chance for an autograph, but I was too afraid. I didn't want to risk angering him again. When mom picked me up later that day and asked if I had seen Palmer, I was too embarrassed to tell her what had happened. For years I had daydreams about someday meeting him, just so I could apologize for what happened on the way to the 1st tee.

Over the years, he's remained one of the people I most admire. During my annual trips to Myrtle Beach I've played two of the courses he's designed - River's Edge and King's North - repeatedly. I've played Arnold Palmer golf clubs, worn the shirts and still prefer Heinz over Hunt's ketchup because that was "Arnie's brand."

And in 39 years, I've forgotten most of my teenage traumas, but that one will never leave me, and I get reminded every year when Arnie comes back to town.

In 2002, Hazeltine again hosted a major, the PGA. I took my son William, and the parallels were eerie: He was 13, seeing his first pro tournament, on the course where I had been 13 and seen my first one. And for him, seeing Tiger Woods up close was every bit as big a deal as seeing Arnie had been for me. On the way to Chaska, I told him the story and reminded him that if got near Tiger, he should take special care not to step on his heels, or it would haunt him forever.

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