Henning: Palmer made his mark in Michigan, too

Lynn Henning, The Detroit News
Arnold Palmer watches his shot during the 1979 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Township.

There is a golf course in northern Michigan, at Shanty Creek Resort, and it is known as the The Legend. Not coincidentally, it is named for, and designed by Arnold Palmer, even if his right-hand man, Ed Seay, was responsible for the architecture’s nuts and bolts when the course opened 30 years ago this summer.

The course has an unusual, delightful first hole: a par-5, which plays downhill, extremely downhill, and is a quaint sibling to what might be one of the very best holes on any course in Michigan, the par-5 seventh, which doglegs around water, and over a creek to an elevated green framed by maples and cedars and spruce.

The course is pure pleasure. You can critique some of its holes and too many missed opportunities to have gotten better visuals of the adjacent jewel, Lake Bellaire, and here and there offer a demerit. But it stands out. Pleasingly. Indelibly.

And no wonder it has as its namesake and creator the most magnetic name in modern golf history.

We lost Palmer on Sunday at age 87. It was news that, while inevitable, too many of us had hoped would somehow spare us.

The man who made modern-day golf important and dramatic and personal lived such an extraordinary life of celebrity and service. He was always ready with that classic, elegant autograph. With a comfortable greeting or quip delivered in a rich, movie-star baritone that warmed like a fireplace blaze.

I only wish old colleague Joe Falls was with us today. He knew Arnie rather well. It was Joe who had the Falls-brand enterprise at the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills to call Palmer during the tournament’s third round, on Saturday. Arnie was past his qualifying and serious playing days but Joe thought it would be good to hear from The King and get some thoughts on the championship.

Joe could hear ice swirling in Palmer’s cocktail glass. Arnie said he was relaxing, watching the tournament, while Winnie had some spaghetti sauce cooking.

Warmth. Color. Cordiality.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer dead at 87

And on top of all that, he was such a marvelously skilled golfer at a time when America was ready for someone with radiant charisma to make a great game, then just coming to television, a part of our society’s at-home sports entertainment.

Arnie had his Michigan ties, of course.

He won his first major championship, the U.S. Amateur, in 1954 at Country Club of Detroit.

Five years before Falls made his Saturday phone call, Arnie won the second U.S. Senior Open, at Oakland Hills.

It should be noted by people who can’t resist such trivia that the U.S. Senior Open purse in 1981 was $149,000. Palmer’s first-place check was worth a whopping $26,000.

But, of course, for Palmer it was never about the money any more than it was about money for Hogan, or Sarazen, or Nicklaus, or, for that matter, the modern-day guys who know a golf championship’s challenge has little to do with dollars and everything to do with winning.

We, in this state, and in this particular region, can say we knew him, as anywhere in the golf world they seemed to have had an intimate relationship with a man who made you feel close – to him, and to his game.

One of my best friends, Dave Seanor, the longtime past Golfweek editor who grew up not far from Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pa., knew Palmer well and one day 15 years ago was talking with Palmer in the dining room at Arnie’s course in Orlando, Fla., Bay Hill.

It happened to have been Dave’s dad’s birthday and son was wishing his father, then in his 80s, a grand celebration.

Seanor saw that Palmer for a moment had taken a break from whatever he was doing.

“Arnie – can you wish my dad a happy birthday?”

Palmer grabbed the phone.

“Hello, Richard, and happy birthday. This is Arnold Palmer.”

I don’t need to tell you what this meant to an aged gentleman who had experienced his share of grand memories, only to be topped by this 15-second segment of pure bliss.

It isn’t necessary, either, to say what it meant to a son.

Or to a son’s friend, who remembers that anecdote as being purely Arnold Palmer.


Twitter @Lynn_Henning