arnold palmer

Arnold Palmer’s Last Stand

In 1973, The King came to the desert and shot his best and final round on the PGA Tour.

Bill Dwyre Current PSL, Golf

arnold palmer
Arnold Palmer’s 62nd and last tour victory came at the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE UNITED STATES GOLF ASSOCIATION

It was 1973, and the gallery at the Bob Hope Desert Classic wanted a curtain call. Their man, everybody’s man, was 43 years old, hadn’t won a pro golf tournament in two years, and hadn’t looked like their dashing hero in several more than that. But he was Arnold Palmer, and this was the desert.

He was in a place that had become — and would continue to be — almost as much his home as Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he grew up and learned the game, and Bay Hill Country Club in Orlando, Florida, where he would own the course and bring a PGA Tour event six years later. He had won this desert tournament four times, so why not one more? At least, that was the reasoning of his die-hard fans, those who faithfully marched the fairways alongside him, oohing and aahing, clenching their fists at each good shot, and proudly calling themselves “Arnie’s Army.”

See related story: 8 Arnold Palmer Landmarks in the Desert.

He had arrived on the scene about the time television began pointing its cameras at his sport. He was perfect. His personality and his game were like a swashbuckling pirate. He never backed down, never played it safe when playing it risky was possible. He would hike up his pants, take a mighty swing, and charge down the fairways, the Army in pursuit. He’d get to his ball and do it again.

desi arnaz

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Arnold Palmer, shown with Desi Arnaz, kisses the $1,500 check he won at the 1959 Thunderbird Invitational Tournament.  

Television knew it had a good thing. His post-match smile was as big as his game, and he had a genuine nature akin to presidents and puppies. He was The King, the Elvis of sports, the Tiger Woods of the 1950s and ’60s, only friendlier. Newspaper sports editors around the country knew that, no matter what the flow of news or the squeeze of space, there had to be a golf tour story and Palmer’s name had to appear in it. Near the end of his career, it was often the last paragraph: “Arnold Palmer shot a 76 and was in 71st place.” But it was mandatory. Trimming that sentence was a firing offense.

The speculation always drowned out the reality. He arrived in the desert in 1973 as a player who had won seven major titles, including four Masters. Little was said about the fact that his most recent major had been his fourth Masters, nine years previously. Hope didn’t only spring eternal for that ’73 Hope Classic; Arnold Palmer had to. This was, after all, the desert, a place he had discovered a few months after eloping with his wife, Winnie, days before Christmas 1954. He packed her up early in ’55, drove to a tournament in Brawley, California, and stopped en route to have a look at something called the Thunderbird Classic in a place called Palm Springs. He wasn’t eligible to play, but he came back and won it in ’59, the year before the Desert Classic, soon to become the Hope, received tour status. By then, he had already won his first Masters, and his appearance pushed the crowds well in excess of numbers and excitement that there had been for the 1955 Ryder Cup at Thunderbird.

Palmer once told a reporter, “I came to the desert in 1955, and I never really left.”    

His sentiment was no different in that first week of February 1973. Nor was the reception he got.

Jim McCabe wrote in Golfweek years later about that ’73 Hope — and Palmer’s influence. “Bob Hope put his name on the tournament,” McCabe wrote, “but Palmer applied the seal of legitimacy.”

Before the tournament, hope for a Palmer renaissance soared. He was Ponce de León, and the desert was his fountain of youth.

“I always seem to find my game in the desert,” he said. “I think I can win every time I play here.”

The oddsmakers would disagree, and their case would be much stronger after the first day of the then five-day event. Jack Nicklaus was the star of the hour. He was 11 years younger than Palmer and had, by the time of the ’73 Hope, won 11 of his still-standing record 18 major titles.

Palmer once told a reporter, “I came to the desert in 1955 [for a tournament in Brawley], and I never really left.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning wordsmith Jim Murray wrote that Palmer and Nicklaus were the “prime minister and emperor of golf,” respectively.

In the opening round of the ’73 Hope, the prime minister shot 71 and the emperor shot 64. But by the start of the final round on Feb. 11, at Bermuda Dunes Country Club, Nicklaus was hanging on by one shot at 15 under par and was joined in the lead by a young Johnny Miller, who had gotten there with a 63 the previous day. One shot behind was a very good player named Gay Brewer and a very popular one named Palmer. Nicklaus had held or shared the lead each of the first four days, but the home stretch was at hand.

arnold palmer palm springs

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

Palmer’s first visit to the desert, 1955.

dwight eisenhower golf

CSU ARCHIVES/COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

President Eisenhower, Bob Hope, and California Gov. Ronald Reagan present Palmer with the Classic trophy in 1968.

Today, the PGA would have had Nicklaus, Miller, and either Palmer or Brewer in the final grouping. In 1973, the tour had Nicklaus, Palmer, and John Schlee teeing off last. As Desert Sun columnist Larry Bohannan wrote in his book about the 50 years of the Hope tournament, Schlee walked onto the first tee that last day, took a look at his two playing partners, and deadpanned, “I am here to referee this match.”

The first hole at the Bermuda Dunes course is a relatively easy par 5. Palmer birdied it, and Nicklaus bogeyed it.

Dave Stockton, the Redlands resident who won two major titles (’70 and ’76 PGAs) and still spends much time in the desert, played in the Hope that year, tied for 49th to win $385, and was astounded when reminded of the final day of that ’73 Hope.

“Jack Nicklaus bogeyed that hole? He bogeyed No. 1?” Stockton asked.

Nicklaus also three-putted the sixth hole. The Army marched to the 18th, with Palmer holding a two-shot lead. That drama was enhanced by the weather, an unusual rainy day in the desert. But Palmer, older and probably stiffer, not only survived it but flourished in it. Midway through the round, the rain suit came off and the shirt became more untucked. He was at the stage of his life where he needed glasses, and the dark ones he was wearing stayed on, even under cloudy skies.

See related story – Desert Dreamers 4: The Sports Stars.

On the 18th, also a par 5, there were the final moments of intensity. Nicklaus hit the green on the 501-yard hole in two and had a 20-foot putt for an eagle that would have tied things if Palmer made par. But Nicklaus’ putt skipped past so close that it inspired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Al Abrams to write that the ball missed “by a gnat’s earlobe.” Palmer had about 7 feet for birdie and needed only par. He sank the birdie putt, won by two, and flung his visor into the air in celebration.

“It might have been my best finish ever,” he told reporters afterward.

It was also his last (62nd) on the PGA Tour. He won 10 more times on the senior tour, now the Champions tour. In all, Palmer played 42 times in the Desert Classic, winning a record five times. His winning purse in ’73 was $32,000. In his 42 tournaments in the desert, he won a total of $132,963. His charisma helped propel the tour into what’s now a weekly parade of multimillionaires traveling from city to city. After only five months of the current pro tour, No. 150 Stephen Jaeger has earned $403,213.

arnold palmer golf course
A Desert Legend: Arnold Palmer’s legacy lives on in the Coachella Valley.

In 2001, in his second-last Hope tournament, a 71-year-old Palmer, who hadn’t made the cut in 18 years, gave the desert and his still-present Army one more charge. On the final day, he needed to birdie one of the last two holes and par the other to shoot one under 71. He birdied the 17th, parred the 18th, and became the first, and likely only, golfer to ever shoot his age in the Hope.

In the end, that 71 by Palmer at age 71 was a tribute fitting from the golf gods to The King.

When Arnold Palmer died on Sept. 25, 2016, his spirit stayed in the desert with a wealth of reminders and memories.

He designed the course at Tradition Golf Club in La Quinta, and when it opened in 1998, he decided to build a home for himself there. He spent most of many final winters there, next door to his longtime friend and business partner, Charlie Mechem.

“I would get up in the morning, get in the car, and drive down the street to Starbucks,” says Mechem, who still lives at Tradition. “I’d get a couple of cups of half–decaf, take them back, and we’d sit and talk. I cherished every conversation I had with him.”

In January 2018, after some nudging and fundraising by Mechem, a life-size statue of Palmer was erected at the Tradition clubhouse with the blessing of the Palmer family. There are two other Palmer statues in the country: one at his college alma mater, Wake Forest University, and one at the lodge and golf course he owned at Bay Hill in Orlando.

“When I asked the members at Tradition to help with the cost of the statue,” Mechem says, “it was covered in about 10 minutes.”

Palmer played 42 times in the Desert Classic, winning a record five times for a prize total of $132,963.

arnoldpalmergolf

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

The “70 Hope Classic.

In addition to Tradition, Palmer designed eight other Coachella Valley golf courses, each a monument to him. He built the Palmer Course at PGA West, the Classic Club, two courses at Indian Ridge, the Palmer Signature at Mission Hills, Mountain View, SilverRock, and the North Course at Ironwood. He also had a golf course management company that, over the years, handled desert-area courses, including Tahquitz Creek in Palm Springs.

Palmer missed only one Bob Hope Desert Classic tournament in a 42-year run that began in 1960 and carried on through 2002. That was in 1997, when he had surgery for prostate cancer. In 2005, the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at the Lucy Curci Cancer Center opened in the desert. Palmer was asked to lend his name to the facility and didn’t hesitate.

After he stopped playing in the Hope in 2003, he served for many years, through several sponsors and tournament name changes, as the event’s ambassador, a role now filled by Phil Mickelson.

Although Tradition was his eventual desert home, Palmer was a close friend of the late Ernie Dunlevie, who developed Bermuda Dunes Country Club. Palmer won five Bob Hope Desert Classics, and four of them were in years when Bermuda Dunes was the host course and site of the final day of competition. In those days, Palmer stayed at Bermuda Dunes with Dunlevie.

In January 2017, only three months after Palmer died, Eisenhower Health sponsored the addition of a golden star for Palmer on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. It’s located on South Palm Canyon Drive, in front of the downtown Eisenhower Health Center.

But the jewel of Palmer memories is the Arnold Palmer Restaurant, located five minutes from his home at Traditions. It’s not a chain restaurant. It’s the only one.

“I advised him when we started,” Mechem says, “that there had to be just one, because if there were a bunch of them, and somebody wrote in to complain about a meal, knowing Arnie like I did, he’d want to go wherever the restaurant was and fix it.”

The restaurant is more than simply food and atmosphere in a building named after a famous person. It features a room filled with pictures and memorabilia, including one of the four Masters green jackets he won. There’s also a portrait of Arnold Palmer by artist Jim Chase, who used microscopic quotes from and statements about Palmer to create his face. The portrait took 22,719 words and 14 years to design.

“People walk in here,” Mechem says, “look around for a few minutes, and break into tears.”

Bill Dwyre is a former sports editor at the Los Angeles Times and regular contributor to Palm Springs Life.