He hit his wedge shots with the same hard, brutal swing he used for his driver. The ball came out like a drive, hot and low, three or four feet above the ground for 20 yards or so, then rising before plunging to the ground with the backspin's bite.
Watching Arnold Palmer hit practice shots is one of my most vivid memories. Weeks before my high school graduation in 1969, I drove to Sherwood Forest Country Club in Baton Rouge to watch "the man" play in an exhibition against three local club pros.
I felt something like an out-of-body experience seeing in person what I'd often watched on television: the grin, the mannerisms, the lurching swing that ended with his peculiar follow through, thrusting the club down and pointing it toward the fairway, peering intently at the ball's flight.
After witnessing his dynamic warmup, I followed him around the course I knew; my father was a member and sometimes took me to play there. Another thrill was watching him drive the green on a par 4, cutting the left-swinging dogleg by hooking his drive over a clump of trees.
Although I don't remember him, I believe I saw Palmer play at the same course earlier in the 1960s. In those days, before the PGA grew wealthy, small cities like Baton Rouge still had tournaments, and among Palmer's tour victories are one or two Baton Rouge Opens.
One year when Palmer won, my father took me out to see the tournament. I don't recall seeing Palmer, but remember watching Sam Sneed in a long-sleeved black banlon shirt and his signature Panama hat.
Palmer stood No. 1 in my pantheon of sports heroes. I watched him on TV from the early 1960s; Joe Namath and Muhammad Ali came later. I must have watched with my father Palmer's famous "charge" to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills. I remember the dismal Monday afternoon in 1962 watching Palmer lose at Oakmont to Jack Nicklaus in a playoff.
The most painful memory was watching Palmer blow a seven-stroke lead with nine holes left to fall into a tie with Billy Casper at the 1966 Open at San Francisco's Olympic. The next day, another sad Monday, I viewed Casper beat Palmer in a playoff.
I was sad at Palmer's death this week at age 87. My admiration for him was tempered by sorrow over what might have been. He won seven major championships in a brief six-year span. After the 1966 Open collapse, he remained in majors contention, but another championship eluded him.
Another strong memory is watching him come close to winning the PGA with an incredible shot from the rough beneath a tree, but he never won the tournament, back then the least prestigious major.
Several stories following Palmer's death discussed his business genius and his great popularity among fans. I wondered if his constant TV commercials and need to connect with his galleries took too much of his attention from his golf. He lost three U.S. Open playoffs, blew the 1961 Masters with a double bogey on the last hole when he said he lost his concentration greeting a buddy in the gallery, and fell short in the 1960 British Open because of a weather delay. His lifetime sorrow was that he hadn't won more majors.
The height of his popularity matched a time of tremendous American creativity and glamour; the Camelot years that ended with John F. Kennedy's assassination.
My favorite image of Palmer is from his victory in the 1962 British Open. In those days, the gallery was allowed to throng into the fairway of the tournament's final hole, and a black and white film shows Palmer engulfed by the fans, disappearing for a minute or two into the crowd, then emerging with a grin and mock stagger.
The love he and the fans had for each other, his sheer joy at the game.