Bob Goalby rarely puts pen to paper, but something moved him last month to drop a line to an old friend.
He last saw Arnold Palmer in April at Augusta National Golf Club and 79th Masters Tournament. When they parted ways — after watching Danny Willett pull on the green jacket with his first major championship — they told each other “see you next year.”
But Goalby wasn’t so sure. He saw that Palmer was slipping.
“I just wanted him to know I was thinking about him and to tell him I hoped he was feeling better,” Goalby said Monday by phone from his son’s house in Sea Island, Ga.
And so pen met paper.
The letter read: “I was honored to have played in the same era as you. All of us would have liked to have been you.”
Goalby received the bad news Sunday in a phone call from his nephew, Jay Haas, who had just wrapped up play at the Pacific Links Bear Mountain Championship. Palmer, who had been in a Pittsburgh hospital since Thursday undergoing tests on his heart, had died at 87.
The news didn’t surprise Goalby, who is also 87, but it hit him hard.
“I’m very sad and just remembering all the the good times I had with him, all the times he beat me and the one or two times I may have beaten him,” said Goalby, the best golfer ever to come out of the metro-east and a contemporary of Palmer, who is on the short list of golf’s all-time greatest.
I was honored to have played in the same era as you. All of us would have liked to have been you.
Bob Goalby in a letter earlier this year to Arnold Palmer
Goalby, an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour and second place finisher in the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, played hundreds of rounds of golf with Palmer, both in practice and tournament play.
One round in particular stands out for Goalby because it was one of the few times he out-hit “The King,” whose 62 PGA Tour championships ranks fifth all-time.
“I was paired with him at the Miami Open in 1960 and beat him on the last hole,” Goalby said. “I got the big $2,000 prize and never dreamed about what these guys are making today. But we were pleased with the money back then.”
He also recalled a few non-sanctioned rounds which involved an under-the-table purse – “between friends,” as Goalby put it.
“We bet on a shot or a round here or there,” Goalby confessed. “I can assure you that Arnie got into my pocket more than I ever got into his. But he was a slow pay. He would never settle up in public because he was just too proud for that.”
The one time Goalby would have welcomed a competitive push from Palmer was in 1968 at Augusta.
Palmer was 38 and already had won his four Masters championships, a record at the time. But he failed to make the tournament cut for the first and only time over a 20-year stretch from 1955-75.
Goalby went on to win the Green Jacket, one of the most iconic trophies in all of sports.
We bet on a shot or a round here or there. I can assure you that Arnie got into my pocket more than I ever got into his.
Bob Goalby about Arnold Palmer
The competitive and personal relationship between the two continued through several years on the senior circuit, known today as the PGA Champions Tour.
The Belleville native had a hand in the formation the Seniors Tour in 1978, even before he was eligible to complete in it. He went on to win senior tournaments in ’81 and ’83.
It took Palmer an extra year to join the fun, but Goalby said his influence was key to the tour’s early growth and continued popularity.
“We started with 12 tournaments and at one point got up to 48, which is probably too much for the old guys,” Goalby said. “But it was good for the players of our era because we didn’t have a pension like they have now. It was a way for players to continue to earn.
“It took Arnie a little longer to recognize he couldn’t swing it with the young guys any more, but he won 15 tournaments once he joined. Without him, I don’t know that there would still be a Champions Tour.”
Players of the era sometimes criticized the aggressiveness that became Palmer’s trademark. He swung hard — hitting shots through trees, over water, through traps — and took chances others would never take.
That corkscrew swing both helped Palmer rally from seven strokes back on the final day of the 1960 U.S. Open and led to his own seven-stroke collapse at the U.S. Open in 1966.
He won 15 tournaments once he joined. Without him, I don’t know that there would still be a Champions Tour.
Bob Goalby on Arnold Palmer’s impact on the Senior Tour
“He would take chances and go for it at all costs. That was just his nature as a gambler,” Goalby said. “Once he got that notoriety, it was even harder for him to back off.”
But whatever his contemporaries thought of his game, they admired the man. The congenial, down-home drawl and even nature that made him a trustworthy commercial spokesman played as well with his peers in the locker room as it did with the public.
It’s also what inspired those words Goalby wrote in a letter to a friend living his final days ... “All of us would have liked to have been you” ...
“We were all jealous of Arnie, and not because we didn’t love him,” Goalby said. “We just wanted to play like him, and make money like him, and be able to treat people like he did.
“He very much was just a regular guy who played golf at another level and, at the same time, was popular with everyone. That’s a lot to emulate.”