Turning Point: Nearly 70 years ago, the U.S. Amateur changed Arnold Palmer’s career path, and golf was never the same again

Arnold Palmer entered the national sporting consciousness at the 1954 U.S. Amateur by defeating Robert Sweeny.

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the May 9, 2014 issue of Golfweek.

ORLANDO, Fla. – He was a 24-year-old paint salesman living in Cleveland, just seven months removed from a three-year stint in the Coast Guard. This was before his army of adoring fans, before his patented charges, and before he made golf cool.

Arnold Palmer, the son of a greenkeeper, entered the national sporting consciousness at the 1954 U.S. Amateur by defeating Robert Sweeny, 1 up, at the Country Club of Detroit.

Ask him to recount his earliest glory days and Palmer has been known to reach for a black hardcover copy of a 64-page book detailing the significance of this triumph. The cursive lettering of the title, written in gold-leaf, says it all: “The Turning Point.”

“That’s what it was in my life,” Palmer says all these years later seated in his office above the locker room at Bay Hill Club. “It gave me the confidence that I was ready to turn professional and play the PGA Tour.”

One year later, Palmer won the first of his 62 Tour titles and began to usher in golf’s modern era. But at the 54th U.S. Amateur, Palmer, who was as slender as wire and strong as cable, was a dark horse among the 1,278 entries that included Billy Jo Patton, Frank Stranahan, and Harvie Ward. Even that week, Palmer injected excitement into the championship with his high-wire act. Jimmy Gill, Palmer’s 16-year-old caddie, recalled the stir of fascination that Palmer’s go-for-broke style caused.

“If he missed the shot, he knew he would make it up later,” Gill said. “He had something about him. That walk of his, the way he attacked the ball.”

Sixty years later, Arnold Palmer holds a photo of himself holding the 1954 U. S. Amateur trophy. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/GOLFWEEK)

Palmer survived a daunting gantlet of foes on a par-70 course that had been stretched for the competition to 6,875 yards by Robert Trent Jones Sr. Palmer kidded USGA officials that they must have wanted him out of the tournament early. He edged Frank Strafaci, a seven-time Met (N.Y.) amateur champion, and John Veghte, a Florida State golfer, 1 up, in the first two rounds. Then in the fifth round, just to reach the quarterfinals, Palmer faced Stranahan. “Nemesis is a good word to describe our relationship on the course,” Palmer said.

Indeed, Stranahan, 32, had Palmer’s number. Previously, he smoked Palmer 12 and 11, in the 36-hole semifinal at the North and South Amateur and at the 1950 Amateur by a 4- and-3 margin. This time Palmer settled things, 3 and 1. As the golfers walked off the green, Stranahan said to Palmer, “That’s it. I’m turning pro tomorrow.”

Next, Palmer faced Don Cherry, the 1953 Canadian Amateur champ and a crooner, who had performed the night before at the nearby Dakota Inn. As Jimmy Demaret once said to him, “Don, the golfers say you’re a singer and the singers say you’re a golfer. So what the hell are you?” On this occasion he was another tough out for Palmer. Cherry held a 2-up lead with seven holes to go but lost his rhythm and the match, 1 up. Afterward, Palmer phoned his parents in Latrobe, Pa., to tell them he had reached the 36-hole semifinal. They hopped into their car and drove eight hours to be there.

“That meant more to me than you can imagine,” Palmer said.

Arnold Palmer watches flight of his tee shot on first hole at The Country Club, June 20, 1963 in Brookline, Mass., at start of the 1963 USGA Open.

His parents arrived in time to see the longest semifinal match in the history of the Amateur at the time. Palmer had defeated Ed Meister, a 38-year-old magazine publisher, in the Ohio Amateur just a few weeks earlier. The rematch was a seesaw affair in which Meister and Palmer traded the lead on seven occasions. All square on the 36th hole, Palmer overshot the green and faced looming disaster. Never fear because Palmer floated a sand wedge that halted within 5 feet of the hole. How good was it? The club placed a plaque on the spot where the ball lay buried and Palmer called it “the shot of my tournament.” Still, he crouched over a touchy, downhill slider in his pigeon-toed stance needing to make the putt to force extra holes.

“If I had missed it, I’d be gone,” Palmer said. “Who knows what would have happened in my life? I probably would have continued on playing amateur golf, and then I don’t know.”

But Palmer sank the putt, and the match continued at the first hole, where Meister had a 4-foot putt for victory. Did Palmer think his run was over?

“I never think that way,” Palmer said. “If he had had me, we wouldn’t be talking here now.”

On the third extra hole, Palmer closed out the match, muscling a 300-yard drive, reaching the par 5 in two and making birdie. That set up Palmer against Sweeny, the 1937 British Amateur champion, in the final.

“To look at us side by side,” Palmer wrote in “A Golfer’s Life,” “you might well have thought we hailed from different galaxies.”

Sweeny, 43, was a millionaire investment banker, the quintessential American playboy splitting time between Palm Beach, Fla., New York, and London. As a member at Seminole Golf Club, Sweeny played matches with Ben Hogan each winter as the future Hall of Famer tuned up for the Masters, and famously offered Hogan a stroke per side.

Thanks to a red-hot putter, Sweeny jumped out to an early 3-up lead on Palmer. As they departed the fourth green, Sweeny threw an arm around Palmer’s shoulder and, attempting to lighten the mood, said to him, “You can be sure of one thing: I can’t go on like this much longer.”

Palmer pulled ahead at the 32nd hole, stretched the lead to 2 up a hole later but 3-putted the 35th hole to prolong the match. When Sweeny’s drive at the last disappeared into the trees and thick rough right, he couldn’t recover and conceded the match on the green. Moments later, James D. Standish Jr., the tournament’s general chairman, gave the signal and a 12-piece brass band located on the clubhouse terrace played “Hail to the Chief.”

Tears streamed down the face of Palmer’s mother, Doris, and he hugged her. “Where’s Pap?” Palmer asked. Deacon Palmer was lingering by the scoreboard. Six decades later, Palmer still remembers his father’s long level gaze and the way his voice went soft as he mouthed these words: “You did pretty good, boy.”

Palmer’s victory set a chain of events in motion. Instead of returning to selling paint – “That might have ruined my life if I had been any good at it,” he said – Palmer played the next week in bandleader Fred Waring’s invitational, the Waite Memorial, in Shawnee-on-the-Delaware, Pa. His boss gave him time off to play the tournament only because he’d won the Amateur. There, Palmer met Winifred Walzer, who would become his wife of 45 years until her death in 1999.

“I thought she was a rich socialite and that if I married her, I’d just be able to play golf all the time. She thought I was a rich, young executive that could give her the lifestyle she wanted. We were both wrong,” Palmer wrote in “The Turning Point.”

Soon, the young couple were engaged. Almost three months after the championship on Nov. 17, 1954, Palmer announced his intentions to turn pro. “I can’t overlook my life ambition to follow in the footsteps of my father,” Palmer wrote to the USGA. “We both have counted on this since I first started playing golf 14 years ago. My good fortune in competition this year indicates it is time to turn to my chosen profession.”

A day later, he signed an endorsement contract with Wilson Sporting Goods for $5,000 plus a $2,000 signing bonus. Palmer heeded the advice of his father. “Go and play the way you know how and you’ll be all right,” he said.

The next spring, Palmer made his debut at the Masters, where soldiers from Fort Gordon in Augusta discovered an American original, and golf would never be the same.

United States get revenge on Internationals with 2021 Arnold Palmer Cup win

The Americans have won the Arnold Palmer Cup 13 times since 1997.

For the first time since 2018 the Americans are Arnold Palmer Cup champions.

Team USA entered the Sunday singles matches of the annual team competition for college and university golfers with a 20-16 lead over its International counterparts and needed to secure 11 points from 24 matches to capture the cup at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Illinois.

Objective complete.

After Duke sophomore Erica Shepherd ran away with a 3-and-2 win over South Carolina sophomore and No. 5-ranked Pauline Roussin-Bouchard, Arizona redshirt senior Brad Reeves earned the clinching point with a 3-and-2 win of his own over Oklahoma State’s Bo Jin, who finished runner-up at the NCAA Championship earlier this month.

The win is the Americans’ 13th of the competition, which dates back to 1997. The United States lost last December at Bay Hill, 40½–19½.

The competition as it is played now features teams from the U.S. and the rest of the world, comprised of 12 men and 12 women, but has changed over the years. From 1997-2017 the event was men only, and from 1997-2002 was contested between the U.S. and Great Britain and Ireland. After the Americans won four of the first six events, the Great Britain and Ireland team was expanded to include all of Europe from 2003-2017. The current format has been used since 2018.

Sunday singles results

  • Gina Kim (USA) def. Ana Pelaez Trivino (Int.), 3 and 2
  • David Puig (Int.) def. Dylan Menante (USA), 3 and 2
  • Jacob Bridgeman (USA) def. Alex Fitzpatrick (Int.), 2 and 1
  • Emma Spitz (Int.) def. Julia Johnson (USA), 1 up
  • Beatrice Wallin (Int.) def. Irene Kim (USA), 4 and 3
  • Julian Perico (Int.) def. William Moll (USA), 5 and 3
  • Trent Phillips (USA) def. Adrien Dumont de Chassart (Int.), 4 and 3
  • Isabella Fierro (Int.) def. Kate Smith (USA), 2 and 1
  • Lauren Walsh (Int.) def. Rachel Kuehn (USA), 2 and 1
  • Benjamin Shipp (USA) def. Puwit Anupansuebsai (Int.), 7 and 5
  • Ryan Hall (USA) def. Yuxin Lin (Int.), 1 up
  • Virunpat Olankitkunchai (Int.) and Emilia Migliaccio (USA), tied
  • Allisen Corpuz (USA) def. Penny Brown (Int.), 4 and 2
  • Hugo Townsend (Int.) and Sam Bennett (USA), tied
  • Pontus Nyholm (Int.) def. Trevor Norby (USA), 2 and 1
  • Emily Price (Int.) def. Hanna Harrison (USA), 4 and 3
  • Latanna Stone (USA) def. Karen Fredgaard (Int.), 2 and 1
  • Ricky Castillo (USA) def. Joe Pagdin (Int.), 2 and 1
  • Eugenio Chacarra (Int.) def. Pierceson Coody (USA), 3 and 1
  • Agathe Laisne (Int.) def. Brooke Matthews (USA), 1 up
  • Erica Shepherd (USA) def. Pauline Roussin-Bouchard (Int.), 3 and 2
  • Brad Reeves (USA) def. Bo Jin (Int.), 3 and 2
  • Nick Gabrelcik (USA) def. Allan Hill (Int.), 3 and 2
  • Lauren Hartlage (USA) def. Ingrid Lindblad (Int.), 1 up

[mm-video type=playlist id=01es6rjnsp3c84zkm6 player_id=none image=https://golfweek.usatoday.com/wp-content/plugins/mm-video/images/playlist-icon.png]

Golf Channel’s nine major moments in its 25 years

Golf Channel’s first 25 years have included many significant moments, but none more so than these nine.

As Golf Channel celebrates its 25th anniversary, here’s a look at nine major moments that stand out or shaped its future.

Golf Channel launches

Jan. 17, 1995 — At the time, Joe Gibbs, a Birmingham entrepreneur, and co-founder Arnold Palmer, had an audacious idea that drew plenty of skepticism. But it would prove to be a stroke of genius and change the way the game is consumed. Its first televised event was the 1995 Dubai Desert Classic.

Peter Kessler interviews Arnold Palmer about controversial Callaway ERC driver

Dec. 2001 — Kessler’s criticism of Palmer, Golf Channel co-founder and chairman, for his endorsement of the unconforming driver led to the popular talk-show host, who had become the face of Golf Channel, being let go.

Golf Channel televises complete live coverage of Solheim Cup for first time

Sept. 2003 — This is an underrated moment that opened a lot of eyes to what Golf Channel was capable of doing.

Comcast acquires full ownership

Dec. 2003 — This gave the network deep pockets to pursue PGA Tour rights, which they may not have been able to do otherwise. The merger with NBC Universal in 2011 provided wonderful synergies and access to live “weekend golf” and properties such as the Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup.

Golf Channel becomes exclusive cable home of the PGA Tour

Jan. 2006 — This unprecedented, 15-year rights deal beginning in 2007 took GC next level and turned out to be a sweetheart deal for the network.

GolfNow joins Golf Channel portfolio

April 2008 — For better or worse, GolfNow changed the way golfers book tee times while offering courses a more advanced suite of products to run their business for little to no cost. Given that GolfNow has evolved into Golf Channel’s cash cow, this deal proved to be critical for future financial success.

Mike McCarley becomes fourth president

Feb. 2011 — No one has been a bigger cheerleader for the network both in the public eye and privately in board rooms. Despite losing the USGA bid under his watch, he has guided GC to new heights and made GolfNow a focal point and more successful that anyone could have dreamed.

Carries the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship National Finals

April 2014 – On Sunday prior to the Masters, Golf Channel shows the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship National Finals live from Augusta National Golf Club. Any time you have rights to broadcast an event at Augusta National, it is a big deal.

Golf Channel televises its first men’s major championship

July 2016 — All that seemingly had eluded Golf Channel was a major. But that ended when it acquired early-round coverage of The Open from Royal Troon. What once seemed like a pipe dream became reality.

[lawrence-related id=778017545,778017253,778017185,778017072]

From humble beginnings, Golf Channel celebrates 25 years

Golf Channel was an audacious idea 25 years ago that has changed viewing habits and become part of the very fabric of the game.

Happy 25th birthday, Golf Channel.

On Jan. 17, 1995, the first 24-hour single-sport station launched in a mere 10,000 households, capitalizing on the cable-TV boom.

President George H.W. Bush spoke the network’s very first words, welcoming “his fellow Americans and fellow golfers to this special occasion” before handing off to hosts Lynda Cardwell and Brian Hammons, who took the reins for two hours of live programming, beginning at 7 p.m.

Golf Channel has changed the way golf fans consume the game and paved the way for the eventual creation of the NFL Network as well as MLB, NBA and NHL channels. It has grown from just 15 hours of live programming in the network’s first week (the 1995 Dubai Desert Classic was the first televised event) to more than 100 live hours from three U.S. time zones and five countries this week.

A 24-hour golf channel was the brainchild of Joe Gibbs, a Birmingham businessman who made his fortune in cable and cellular phones, and partnered with Arnold Palmer, who gave instant credibility to an idea that drew more than a few snickers. One writer called it “24 hours of chubby guys in bad clothes” and another claimed, “We’ve already got C-SPAN.”

“There were plenty of questions about who’s going to watch it?” recalled ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, who got his start in TV as a production associate working in Golf Channel’s video library. “We kind of figured it out as we went.”

Despite the skepticism and resistance from investors, Gibbs forged ahead in selling his vision. He touted an audience of 25 million golfers and conducted a national survey that suggested there were more than 44 million golf fans that would be interested in tuning in.

His biggest sales job may have been on Palmer himself. In what has become part of Golf Channel legend, Gibbs was in a meeting with Palmer and Palmer’s financial advisers, who had their doubts about the notion of a 24-hour golf channel. Retaining Palmer’s involvement was critical to future success. When it was Palmer turn to speak, he said, “Gentlemen, if I hadn’t tried to hit it through the trees a few times in my life, none of us would be here.”

Brandel Chamblee, who served as lead analyst at Pebble Beach, is best known for his studio work.
Brandel Chamblee is one of Golf Channel’s most-opinionated commentators. (Photo courtesy Golf Channel)

That was the last time Gibbs worried about his co-founder’s participation. “It was almost like we were going to the party; it was just a question of what were we going to wear,” said Alistair Johnston, Palmer’s longtime manager with IMG, in the short film “Day One: The Making of Golf Channel.”

Another key moment that gave the start-up further legitimacy was securing a rights agreement with the PGA Tour. The contract was signed in 1994 during the Masters on the hood of a rental car.

 

Gibbs put together a consortium of six cable companies that together invested $60 million in Golf Channel. In short order, they assembled a state-of-the-art digital facility and hired a rag-tag crew, but they were still flying by the seat of their pants. Two weeks before launch, producer Dave Kamens turned to a colleague and said, “Why don’t we do 12 hours of golf and 12 hours of tennis per day. I mean, 24 hours of golf?”

“I had come from the launch of F/X seven months earlier where we put on eight live shows a day and still ran re-runs of the old Batman series,” he said. “The Golf Channel being ‘born’ as Tiger took hold of the game was mighty fortunate, but the secret sauce was Joe Gibbs’ visionary idea and the eventual viewership that scaled towards Cadillac buyers and Rolex-wearers.”

Producer Jeff Hymes remembers walking down a corridor of the gleaming new studio and Matt Scalici, vice president of network operations, was coming the other direction shortly before the network’s big debut.

“He looked at me and I looked at him and it was dead quiet,” Hymes recounts in “The Making of Golf Channel” podcast. “I said, ‘Matt, stop and listen. It will never be like this again. Starting tomorrow there will never be a dull moment in this building.’ ”

A Golf Channel crew sets up for an early morning live shot at TPC San Antonio. Photo by Erich Schlegel/USA TODAY Sports

Golf Channel has become part of the fabric of the game, with more live tournament coverage than all other U.S. networks combined. Over the past 25 years, it has become the place golf fans turn to watch everything from golf’s major professional circuits to NCAA Men’s and Women’s National Championships, Drive Chip and Putt Championship National Finals, the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, golf’s return to the Olympics, documentaries like Arnie, original programming such as more than 100 episodes of Feherty and more than 300 episodes of School of Golf as part of its news, instruction and entertainment programming dedicated to showcasing the global sport in more than 70 countries and nine languages.

“It’s fun to know that the excitement that night and the hope of a group of people actually turned out to be well-founded,” Van Pelt said.

[lawrence-related id=778017545,778017253,778017185,778017072]