Getting An Autograph

Writing about my Johnny Palmer driver last week caused me to search to see if I could obtain a golf ball bearing his name as well. I found one for a reasonable price, and it has joined my modest golf-ball collection. Here is the Palmer ball (bottom row, on the left) with five other signature balls that I already had.

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These days, when you think of a signed ball, it’s usually the Sharpie-autographed ones most pros give after their rounds to their walking scorers and standard bearers. (Many pros won’t sign a ball in the course of regular autograph duty.) But manufactured signature golf balls used to be a staple in the game.

As this small sample indicates, there were models for superstars (Byron Nelson), established winners (Doug Sanders) and lesser lights. Johnny Bulla (his model is far right on the top row) was a wonderful man, like Johnny Palmer (and me) a native North Carolinian. Winner of the 1941 Los Angeles Open, Bulla flew planes, was best buddies with Sam Snead and became a heck of a golfer playing left-handed, too. I had several great visits and phone calls with Bulla in his later years. He is one of the subjects in Al Barkow’s terrific oral history, Gettin’ to the Dance Floor.

When it came to golf balls, Bulla was known for being the first player to endorse a model not sold in a pro shop. Bulla promoted the “Po-Do,” an inexpensive ball sold by Walgreens, and caught some flak for doing so. The Po-Do (below) was “vulcanized” for durability. That’s not a word you hear in current golf-ball marketing.

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A Driver Makes Another Trip

My first driver, a Christmas present in 1969.

My first driver, a Christmas present in 1969.

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.

Langer’s Landslide Victory

A number of visions of Bernhard Langer stand out after his more than four decades as a professional golfer: hitting a ball from—not around or over or under—a tree at the 1981 Benson and Hedges International; winning the 1985 Masters, resembling, in his all-red ensemble, someone who had time much time and too much Rit within reach on the eve of the final round; losing the 1991 Ryder Cup with a missed putt and resulting grimace that seemed appropriate for an actual war, not a faux one on a resort golf course; the cool, calm and collected man out-captaining American Hal Sutton in the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills during yet another European victory.

Those images aren’t going anywhere, but they now must be augmented with something from Langer on the tawny turf of Royal Porthcawl in Wales over the weekend. At the Senior British Open—one of three, in my mind, true majors in senior golf—Langer played one of the best tournaments by anyone on any tour. Ever.

Langer finished at 18-under 266, 13 strokes ahead of Colin Montgomerie, in a performance that had echoes of Bob Beamon, Secretariat and Tiger Woods winning the 2000 U.S. Open by 15 shots. Montgomerie had to sweat out a playoff victory over Gene Sauers in the U.S. Senior Open, but the other 2014 men’s Opens were clear-cut decisions: Martin Kaymer by eight at Pinehurst No. 2 and Rory McIlroy wire-to-wire at Royal Liverpool. In a summer of big statements, Langer was Reggie Jackson hitting a home run out of Tiger Stadium at the 1971 All-Star Game.

Woods’ majestic 2000 U.S. Open and Louise Suggs’ 14-shot victory at the 1949 U.S. Women’s Open are the only majors won by larger margins. And a ginger beer to Old Tom Morris, who won the 1862 British Open by 13 strokes over just 36 holes. In senior golf, though, Langer now stands at the top of Mount Blowout, eclipsing Hale Irwin’s 12-stroke win at the 1997 Senior PGA Championship, one of Irwin’s 16 victories in a two-year span.

Irwin still has more than twice as many Champions Tour career victories as Langer—45 to 22—but with his fourth win of the season Langer has climbed to T-6 on the all-time list with Don January and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Irwin’s total appears safe, but the 56-year-old Langer could possibly threaten the No. 2 senior, Lee Trevino, who won 29 times. A relevant endorsement of Langer’s Champions Tour career is that he now has far more wins (including four senior majors, to go with his two Masters titles) than anyone in his immediate age group. Of golfers born after 1950, Jay Haas, 60, is a distant second with 16 career victories.

Skeptics of senior golf, and there are many, might not acknowledge the high quality of the golf even in the wake of such a dominating effort as Langer’s. They will use the picture at the finish line as evidence of a shallow talent pool and an argument against the Champions Tour as full-fledged competition. Langer’s overwhelming victory, however, can just as easily be viewed a different way. Montgomerie was coming off wins in the Senior PGA and U.S. Senior Open and playing some of the best golf of his life—he wasn’t easing up for his old European Tour mate and longtime Ryder Cup teammate—and it was no contest.

Langer, who was T-8 at the 2014 Masters, dresses like someone half his age and has the physique to do so. He is so fit for a fiftysometing that when he uses that anchored long putter, it seems almost as out of place tucked up against his chest as Adam Scott’s does on him. Not long after the anchoring ban was announced, I was at a Champions Tour event and saw Langer practicing Matt Kuchar-style, club up his left forearm. I asked him not long ago if he had been continuing to work on methods that will be legal come January 2016 and he said, in essence, he is going to anchor his putter as long as he can and deal with what happens next when he must. That makes sense: Langer loves to compete, and anchoring the putter is helping him compete. Regardless of what purists think of the style, while it remains legal why dilute your golf being before you have to? The way Harry Vardon and Sam Snead each found a way to play on after getting the yips, so has Langer in his time. The broomstick might not be fashionable, but it is most functional. Putting isn’t close to the whole story for Langer’s second-act virtuosity, however. The only statistical category in which he is remotely approaches average this year is sand saves, where he is ranked 58th.

There was chatter after Langer won so convincingly at Royal Porthcawl that captain Paul McGinley should consider him for the European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles. Similar talk occurred after Montgomerie completed his senior-major double a couple of weeks ago in Oklahoma. I don’t see McGinley going the Langer route—perhaps unless he goes undefeated between now and when he makes his picks—but the fact that there is even a starter conversation a full decade since Langer himself was captain is a testament to the German native’s golf in 2014.

Some feel like once someone has a bronze in the Hall of Fame, his career is in epilogue gear thereafter. I haven’t ever subscribed to that theory but particularly since 2001, when I saw how disappointed Jack Nicklaus was after he let the U.S. Senior Open slip away late in the final round when he was 61. In the rare sport where longevity much more legitimate than hit-and-giggle is even possible, it makes little sense to discount post-prime but still wonderful play.

Whatever a golfer’s age, there is pleasure in watching him create a great distance between himself and his pursuers, as if he were in a cigarette boat and the rest were in Sunfishes, because it doesn’t happen often. Langer sure isn’t a fast golfer, but it was as if he was in a very fast craft at Royal Porthcawl.

Langer isn’t much of a drinker—I’ve heard him say he enjoys an occasional shandy. I sure hope he had a couple last night.