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Arnold Palmer is equal parts iconic golfer and salesman, with an endearing personality and unfailing image. Partnering for five decades with late IMG founder Mark McCormack, Palmer was the first athlete to take sports marketing into the modern era, becoming synonymous with products such as Pennzoil and Cadillac. Despite Palmer’s last professional win coming in 1988, his name remains in the public eye through an array of products, including his eponymous iced tea and lemonade. At the age of 79, he still oversees Arnold Palmer Enterprises and hosts a PGA Tour event at his course in Bay Hill, Fla., where he recently took a moment to speak with SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Jon Show.
Favorite piece of music: Marching music, classical music and I’m a fan of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Favorite vacation spot: I’ve traveled most of my life so I enjoy being home (in Latrobe, Pa., Orlando and Palm Springs, Calif.) as much as anywhere. I picked my domiciles to be next to the things I enjoy, like lakes and golf.
Favorite author: Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and (Palmer biographer) Jim Dodson
Favorite sports movie: “Hoosiers”
Favorite piece of memorabilia: The trophy for being the first Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. It sits in a special place.
Most influential person: My father
Biggest challenge: Continuing to make contributions to charity and do the right things. It will always be a challenge.
Best advice received: From my father: Treat others as you’d like to be treated. That’s stayed with me throughout my life.
How would you assess the state of the PGA Tour?
Palmer: The PGA Tour is very good right now, even in this economic situation. I think the PGA Tour is probably going to see a few tournaments fall by the wayside. I think that it’s going to become far more centered on international golf than many of us ever suspected. And I think that the potential for world golf is greater than it has ever been. One of my early thoughts and ambitions as far as golf was concerned was to see the world of golf become the world of golf.
Your avid followers were dubbed Arnie’s Army. Do you think fans connect with players today the way they did in your prime?
Palmer: Fans and people all over the world still write me and talk about Arnie’s Army and that is still something that is very special to me. Are the players as personal to the world of golf and fans? I think some individuals are, but, overall, no.
What could be done to improve that connection?
Palmer: I recognize people and, one of the things that I constantly do is I write to people that write me. I return the greetings that I get from people. I think that has become something that has helped me better understand people around the world. I feel a certain satisfaction for having had the opportunity to still have a relationship with people that are interested in what I do, or what the game of golf is doing.
The rivalry between you, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player helped shape the sport, and rivalry is something that’s been lacking in recent years. Can golf thrive with just one superstar?
Palmer: I think it can survive. I don’t think having one superstar is the ideal situation. It’s better to have competition … and I think we’ll see that in the coming years.
Are there as many personalities in the game these days?
Palmer: I suppose there are less characters such as Lee Trevino. I don’t know that we have the types of characters that we once did. You look at one of the most popular guys out there who is not helping himself, and that’s John Daly. If John could pull himself together and do what he has the ability to do, he’d be even more popular than he already is. But the bottom line is we’re not seeing as much of the flamboyant character in golf as we used to.
Why do you think that is?
Palmer: It’s more commercial, I suppose. The fact that they’re playing for so many millions of dollars every year has some effect on the viability of characters, so to speak.
Is there a player that sticks out above the others when it comes to spending time with fans and sponsors?
Palmer: I think one of the guys, this isn’t the only one, but certainly Peter Jacobsen is friendly to everyone. He is in business but he’s also an entertaining guy. He’s a guy that spends time with the fans and enjoys them.
Any players that are still active on the tour?
Palmer: Oh, boy, that’s a tough one. The guys that are active today are so busy playing and doing their own thing, I suppose it becomes a little more difficult to mingle with the fans.
I heard a story about the time you played in a pro-am with a MasterCard executive who immediately informed his staff to sponsor your event at Bay Hill. You’ve been outspoken about players taking off their hats in the clubhouse, or signing legible autographs. Do the upper echelon players do enough to sell the PGA Tour?
Palmer: I’m not sure they do enough. I’m not sure that they do as much to protect the personality of the game as they should. I always hope that as time goes on that they will help protect the things that are so near and dear to a lot of us who played the game.
If you were to sit down with a young player who just joined the tour, what would you advise him?
Palmer: Recognize the fans. The fans recognize you as a player, and you should give them the courtesy of recognizing them as people who support and have made the game of golf as great as it is.
You can’t ever stop thanking the American public, or worldwide public, for things that they have made possible for those of us who have played the game and been fortunate enough to have some success in the game.
I read that someone from IMG long ago said of your career, “We will have established you as a business, and you personally will not be so important.” How was that different from what players and their agents were doing back then?
Palmer: One time I said to someone who worked att Arnold Palmer Enterprises, and I was getting on in my playing years, what are you going to do when I can’t shoot 65 every time or win tournaments? He looked at me and said, “It won’t matter because you’ll be branded, and that will carry on for longer than you think.” That’s the business of doing things.
Is there something you always looked for in a corporate sponsor?
Palmer: I look at products and quality. Most of the sponsors and the things I have created or associated with were things that I used myself or would recommend to people that would be my customers.
Any favorite anecdotes about Mark McCormack?
Palmer: Mark and I were good friends. Our objectives were sometimes different, but we were able to discuss and put things together in a proper manner. We never stopped meeting and talking and philosophizing through our lives and association. He was a businessman; I was a golfer. I was the common sense guy and he was the businessman. And that’s a lot of our association. We discussed those things in reality. Sometimes common sense and business doesn’t match up, and then you have to work it out, and we did.
A couple days before he passed away we had a breakfast meeting and I can say without equivocation, it was one of the best meetings we ever had. We were both enjoying the years that we were together and the things that we did.
What was the secret to your relationship? There aren’t many players who have the same agent for such a long stretch of time.
Palmer: We shook hands for our original deal and I think that had a lot to do with everything we did. We were living together and doing business on our word and I think that was the major connector between us.
Sounds like it was more binding than a legal contract.
Look for more of this conversation in our sister publication, SportsBusiness Daily, located at www.sportsbusinessdaily.com.