The U.S. Open was always my favorite event to cover as a young sports writer.
It is always in a different city and golf fans would spend a year working up a frenzy for the big event coming to their town.
The 1978 U.S. Open was held at Cherry Hills Country Club in the Denver suburbs.
It just happened to be the site of Arnold Palmer’s great charge of 1960 when he came roaring from seven shots back in the final round to win the championship.
Eighteen years later, Palmer was 49 years old and well past his prime. Didn’t matter, he was, after all, still Arnold Palmer.
It was Wednesday before the first round and I had finished filing my stories, it was later in the afternoon, not far from dinner time, or happy hour for most of the press corps. I paid one last trip to the range and there was Palmer hitting balls at the end of the range. I wandered down and of course there was the easy conversation that Palmer was famous for. I had met him for the first time a few years earlier when I took over the golf beat at the Tampa Tribune.
“Hey Tom, good to see you,” was the greeting from The King. That’s the way he was. He treated newspaper guys like his was one of us, we were important to him, heck, Arnold treated everyone like they were important to him.
We talked a little about his win in 1960 and he reminded me: “That was a long time ago,” and he asked me how old I was back then. I told him I was 10. He laughed.
“I’m going up to the locker room,” Arnold said as he stuffed a wedge back in his bag, peeled off his glove and shoved it in his back pocket.
We walked together to the clubhouse.
Fastest way to the locker room was a side entrance. The press was allowed everywhere back then and Arnold would probably want to have a beer.
As we approached the entrance, a portly security guard stood there, trying to look a lot more important than he was.
He saw my badge on my belt then cast his eyes on Arnie and queried: “May I see your badge sir?”
At that moment, Palmer remembered that his players’ badge was pinned to his visor and his visor was hanging on the umbrellas handle back on his golf bag. It was still at the range because he planned to go back and hit a few putts before leaving the property.
At worst, you’d figure that the security guy would know Arnold Palmer.
Arnold was the last guy on earth who would ever say: “Don’t you know who I am?”
I looked at the guard and said: “This is Arnold Palmer, he is playing this week.”
The guard simply pulled out his badge identification sheet, held it out and said: “You need one of these to come in.”
I looked at Arnold and quickly reached into my pocket and pulled out a spare press badge. Back in the day, if you were nice enough, you could always coerce an extra badge at check-in if you were polite enough.
“He’s with me,” I told the guard as I handed the badge to Arnold and we were allowed to pass.
Once inside, we both broke out laughing.
“Hey Arnold,” I said, “it’s comforting to know that there’s at least one guy on the face of the earth who doesn’t recognize you.”
Arnold shrugged those large shoulders and handed me back the spare badge. “I think I can handle it from here,” he said to me. “Enjoy the week, hope I can give you something to write about,” Palmer said as he headed off.
Arnold shot 76-75 and missed the cut.
The following year, in 1979, the Bay Hill Invitational made its debut in Orlando.
Arnold treated me to a Rolling Rock in the IMG VIP tent.
As we drank our Rolling Rocks, Arnold looked and me and asked:
“Do you have any spare press badges?”
All I could do was shake my head and laugh.
Now that he’s gone, I appreciate those days more than ever and I appreciate Arnold Palmer more than ever.
It seems like we took him for granted back then. He made us feel special, there wasn’t enough he could do for you.
Today, it’s a different time, a different tour.
But I still have that press badge from the 1978 U.S. Open that I had to loan to Arnie 38 years ago.