This summer, shortly after losing a job that I’d had for more than 20 years, I moved a couple of miles away. Hassles aside, the move provided a change in scenery and a change in rent, both of which were useful. As it has about a dozen times over the decades, whether hundreds of miles along the eastern seaboard or one zip-code numeral away, my Johnny Palmer signature driver made the trip with me.
The No. 1 wood is not the most valuable nor most sentimental of my possessions, but it has endured among my things. Since it came out of my golf bag so long ago, it has inhabited sheds, garages, neglected closets, the corner of a spare room with a Jack Kramer tennis racquet. Occasionally in my adulthood, the driver has been within reach of my large hands so they could overlap its worn, original grip that my small hands once eagerly embraced when the rubber was fresh and tacky. Every couple of years I hit a few balls with it, recalling who I was and what golf was when the Johnny Palmer and its brothers in the Spalding starter set became mine at Christmas in 1969.
I was 10, a curious, sports-mad kid with a crew cut. For months I had looked at the page in the sporting-goods section of the Sears Wish Book where the clubs — and red-and-black bag — were listed. After a few seasons using only a Kroydon mallet-head putter and Wilson Sam Snead Blue Ridge 5-iron bought at Sky City, I wanted those seven matching clubs the way a debutante wants pearls. But regardless of the dog-eared page and my relentless reminders from Halloween forward, $49.95, as I recall the price, was a lot for the Fields family (and Santa Claus).
Come Christmas morning, though, the Spaldings were under the tree. I received some smaller gifts, too, but needed nothing but my new set. That December 25th, even all the candy, fruit and nuts Santa brought and that made the day all the more special, wasn’t as coveted. In my young mind, those clubs made me a golfer.
The driver held special status because I’d never hit one — only a neighbor’s stray 4-wood in a field near our house. Although the clubhead is about a third the size of drivers manufactured these days, it seemed huge when I slipped off the head cover for the first time. Teeing up a ball from a seventy-five cent small bucket at the local range was to sense the possibility of power. Momentarily, at least.
Topping a shot was sad, an opportunity squandered. Skying a drive was like hitting a pop-up to the pitcher without the futile sprint down the first-base line. Slices floated frustratingly out of the imaginary fairway, my first physics lesson.
Amid the poor shots, however, would come something resembling a good one. The club would move as if I almost knew what I was doing. The ball would carry toward my new favorite sport’s center field. The anticipation of trying to do it again would begin before the ball’s successful journey ended beyond the 150-yard sign. I had putted enough on the living room carpet and in our backyard and watched enough golf on television to know what golf’s end game was, but the lure of the (sort of) long ball, now that I had the Johnny Palmer driver, was a new dimension of golf fun.
No one forgets their first far and sure shots, even if they were struck with a budget model, as mine were. The club with Johnny Palmer’s autograph etched in white paint across its dark crown wasn’t even made of wood. It was formed of thermoplastic resin. In a nod to the real thing, Spalding called it “Persimmonite.” I couldn’t hit one “on the screws” because their were no screws on my first driver, only red paint with a black diamond in the middle.
I knew who Arnold Palmer was when I was 10, but it would be a while before I found out about the golfer whose name was on my clubs. Johnny Palmer, as I discovered, was a tour winner — seven titles between 1946 and 1954, including two biggies, the Western Open and Colonial National Invitation — before Arnold Palmer won the U.S. Amateur. When Arnold joined Johnny Palmer in the field at the Masters, he was “A. Palmer” on the leader boards to distinguish him from the more established Palmer. Runner-up to Sam Snead in the 1949 PGA Championship, before his success on tour Johnny served in the Air Force during World War II, flying more than 30 missions over Japan as a B-29 gunner.
Johnny Palmer was a North Carolinian, same as me, born in tiny Eldorado in Montgomery County, where my maternal grandfather was also born. Before Palmer died, at age 88 in 2006, I got a chance to meet him at the Legends of Golf one spring. He was in his 80s, a little frail, but he smiled when I told him I had gotten started in the game with clubs bearing his name.
His driver — my driver — has a few nicks on top. I remember making one clumsy step walking off a tee when one of my metal spikes gouged the faux persimmon. There are tee marks on the sole, some white paint on the rear, a tiny bit of dirt in the grooves. It is an old club that speaks of a new time when life, like a striped golf ball, was waiting to lift off, to see how far it could go.