Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Memories of Arnie, before he became a golfing icon

Veteran North Carolina public relations executive Bill Hensley met Arnold Palmer at Wake Forest University, before Palmer became an international star and Wake Forest relocated to Winston-Salem. Hensley, who splits his time between Charlotte and Hound Ears Club near Boone, shares some memories of Palmer, who died last week at 87.

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By Bill Hensley

I was a junior at Wake Forest in 1948 when Arnold Palmer enrolled on a golf scholarship. He was accompanied by Marvin “Buddy” Worsham, his friend and golfing pal. Since I was sports editor of the student newspaper, I was in contact often with Palmer and other members of the team, covering classic matches involving such fine players as Mike Souchak and Art Wall of Duke and Harvie Ward of North Carolina.

In the ensuing years, Palmer literally put Wake Forest on the map with his golfing exploits, which included winning the NCAA individual championship.  His tenure was the beginning of the school’s long and successful reign in collegiate golf, which has included such top players as Jay Haas, Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins, Scott Hoch and Gary Hallberg.

It didn’t take long for Palmer to become a campus favorite. Though friendly and personable, he was a bit reserved in comparison with the outgoing, humorous Worsham. It isn’t generally known but Worsham is the reason Palmer came to Wake Forest. Worsham was a native of the Washington, D.C. area and the brother of famed tour player Lew Worsham, and his  high school record attracted the attention of Jim Weaver, the Deacon athletic director and golf coach.

In a conversation with Weaver, Worsham asked if he was seeking other good players for the school. “I certainly am,” was the reply. “Then you ought to recruit Arnold Palmer of Pennsylvania,” Worsham said. “He is a great player. One of the best I have seen. And he beats me every time we play.”

Weaver contacted Palmer and offered him a scholarship sight unseen. Palmer, who evidently was not recruited by other schools, accepted.

Less thrilled with Palmer as a golfer was football coach D. C. “Peahead” Walker. He jokingly told Weaver to make Palmer stop walking around the football practice field with his clubs over his shoulder en route to the school’s golf course. “He ought to be playing linebacker for me,” Walker snorted, “instead of playing that sissy game of golf.” Walker firmly believed that Palmer would have been an excellent football player.

But Palmer was serious about his game. At every opportunity, he drove to Pinehurst for a weekend of golf, mostly on the No. 2 course, his favorite. He was perturbed one weekend when Worsham wouldn’t go with him, saying that he wanted to stay home and wash his car and play tag football with the guys. “You ought to go,” Palmer commented icily, “because your game could use the practice.”

Sadly, Worsham was killed in 1950 in an automobile accident while returning from a fraternity dance in Durham. Ordinarily, Palmer would have been with him, because the two were inseparable, but for some reason  he decided to miss the affair.

Worsham’s death left Palmer in a state of depression.  Soon afterward, he dropped out of school and joined the Coast Guard. The golfing great returned to Wake Forest in 1954 after three years in the service to complete his collegiate eligibility. At the time, Weaver was considering an offer to be the first commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference which he later accepted. He didn’t have much time for golf, so he asked Palmer if he would serve as the team’s coach, and he agreed to do so.

I was the school’s sports information director at the time and enjoyed a special reunion with Palmer, who had given me much to write out over the years. On several occasions,  we double dated, though we  were ill at ease about dating coeds since we were both several years older.

“It wasn’t like he gave us lessons,” said Sandy Burton of  Jamesville,  N.Y., a golf team member in 1954. “He was more like a manager. He drove the van on trips and handled all the off-course details. He was just one  of the guys and a joy to play with. Everyone liked him a lot, and we followed his career with enthusiasm.”

Another team member, Henry Kerfoot of Boynton Beach, Fla. agreed. “Arnold was older, wiser and a better player than the rest of us so we had a lot of respect for him. He would help us with our swing if we asked. We wanted to play with him as much as we could so it pleased us greatly when we had that opportunity. He was a winner.”

Other team members in 1954, in addition to Burton and Kerfoot, were Phil Weichman, Al Birmingham, Joe Turner and Sonny George. John Gerring and Red Sapp were freshmen but not eligible for varsity play.

Palmer won the first ACC golf tournament with an even par round of 72 at the Old Town Club in Winston-Salem. He was declared the winner after the second round of the tournament was rained out. The Deacons, as a team, came in second.

In 1954, Palmer won the national amateur and later turned professional, beginning his spectacular career. In his rookie year, he won the Azalea Open crown in Wilmington.

In the early ’60s, Dick Tiddy of Charlotte, who was head pro at Charlotte Country Club and a golf teammate  of Palmer’s in 1949 and 1950, former Deacon basketball great Dick Hemric and I drove to Augusta to watch hm play in the Masters. We talked with him on the putting green and then met him that evening for dinner in downtown Augusta. Photographs show the three of us wearing jackets and ties to a golf tournament. Times have changed.

Over the years, I would see Palmer at tournaments or other special events which I covered. I had the pleasure of attending his induction into the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame, the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, the Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame and the national Golf Hall of Fame.

During a conversation at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, I asked if he thought Worsham would have been a big star on the tour. “I don’t think he would have pursued that,” Palmer replied.  “I believe he would have gone into the business end of golf and ended up as president of Titleist, Taylor Made or one of the major golf companies. That would have been just like him.”

As the record shows, Arnold Palmer was a special person, an international  sports hero, an unforgettable character whose name will be remembered for ages. I’m glad I knew him, and I will cherish the memories.





David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at dmildenberg@businessnc.com.

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