“Palmer had a deep but friendly voice; Nicklaus sounded like someone who'd spent ten minutes sucking helium from a balloon. Palmer hit the ball right to left; Nicklaus hit it left to right. Palmer hit it low; Nicklaus hit it high. Palmer landed balls in ponds and hayfields; Nicklaus landed them on fairways and greens. Palmer had a hacker's cut only a mother could love; Nicklaus enjoyed a user’s-manual swing. Palmer was a stab-and-jab putter; Nicklaus stroked through the ball. Palmer made eye contact with everyone; Nicklaus only made eye contact with the pin. Palmer was prompt for his appointments; Nicklaus was often tardy.”—Ian O’Connor, Arnie and Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf's Greatest Rivalry (2008)
Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are on the short list of great sports rivals, along with the likes of Russell vs. Chamberlain, Borg vs. McEnroe, and Bird vs. Magic. As demonstrated insightfully by Ian O’Connor (like me, an alum of St. Cecilia, Englewood, NJ) here, the golf legends’ looks, personalities and styles of play made for the kind of contrasts that sportswriters love.
With 18 victories in major tournaments versus seven for his rival, Nicklaus got the better of Palmer over his long career. But there was a reason why Palmer, who died of heart disease over the weekend at age 87, was called “The King.”
There had been great golfers—Jones, Hagen, Snead, Hogan—before Palmer rose to prominence in the late Fifties, and there would be others (Woods) afterward. But none exuded the dash, drama, friendliness, charisma—the sex appeal, if you will—of Palmer. And the lucrative endorsement deals won for him by agent Mark McCormick paved the way that other golfers would gratefully follow.
But what also fascinates me about Palmer is that nickname, “The King,” possessed by another magnetic figure still active when the golfer was starting out in the Fifties: Clark Gable. Like Palmer, the star of Gone With the Wind enjoyed a rivalry, made up in equal parts of friendship, admiration and envy, with another male, an up-and-coming actor at their studio, MGM: Spencer Tracy.
Like Nicklaus, Tracy used a steely concentration to vault to the top of his profession. And, like the golfer, he earned more honors for his work, winning two Best Oscar Oscars and nine nominations, versus one Oscar and three nominations for Gable. But Tracy and, at the start of his career, Nicklaus were burly men who could not match Gable and Palmer in physical attractiveness or, for that matter, natural crowd-pleasing exuberance. (In the case of Palmer, there was also pull-out-all-the-stops style, memorably encapsulated in the 1973 book that expressed his "philosophy of golf": Go for Broke. Who doesn't love a come-from-behind, thrilling finisher?)
For their part, Gable and Palmer wished they had the laser focus on their craft that helped Tracy and Nicklaus adapt to almost any situation on film sets or on the green.
By the time of their deaths in the 1960s, Gable and Tracy, each secure in his own achievement, viewed the other with considerable respect. So did Palmer and Nicklaus as they became senior citizens. This week, the Web site of “The Golden Bear” prominently featured a photo of the two men smiling and hugging. The caption underneath noted graciously about Palmer: “He was the king of our sport and always will be.”