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Wild Bill, Arnold Palmer And The Most Unbelievable Charity Golf Tournament Ever Staged

Wild Bill Turner shares a moment with Arnie in Bristol.
Wild Bill Turner shares a moment with Arnie in Bristol.

Growing up in a golf family, Arnold Palmer was my hero. When Arnie came on the scene in the late 50s, he changed the game of golf with the help of television. I would watch him at every opportunity, always hoping he would pull out a tournament victory with his signature swing off the tee, a hitch of the pants and draining a long putt with flair.

His popularity continued to grow as did his raucous fan base, and even watching on television was some sort of way to be part of “Arnie’s Army.” Cheer for Arnie as the good guy, and roundly boo his closest challenger as the villain.

I met Palmer for the first time in the late 70s at the Greensboro Open in North Carolina. It was only a quick hello on the 17th tee from the guy known as “The King,” but it was bigger for me than if I had just met a President.

By that time, Palmer had won seven of golf’s major tournaments, including four Masters in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964, 2 British Opens and the 1960 U.S. Open. Palmer finished his career with 93 total tournament wins, 62 on the PGA Tour, as well as the 1981 U.S. Senior Open.

On September 25th of this year, Palmer died at the age of 87 in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania hospital, not far from his home town of Latrobe. Upon hearing the news, I immediately recalled the last time I had been seen him – at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

I had been invited by The Greenbrier and its owner, Jim Justice, to do photography during the 2014 Greenbrier Tennis Classic that included tennis Hall of Famers John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. I was sitting court-side waiting for the event to begin when a Greenbrier media coordinator came to my seat and asked if it would bother me or block my shooting angle if a special guest was allowed to sit in an adjacent seat.

Being a guest myself, I quickly responded “not at all,” paying more attention to my camera settings than anyone around me.

Suddenly, I looked up to see Arnie sitting down, his maroon sweater tied around his shoulders in vintage Palmer style. Head tennis umpire Jay Snyder announced the arrival of Palmer, as a buzz overtook the court with every head looking to get a glimpse of “The King”.

After, the first set ended, Palmer rose to head up the steps and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to say hello and ask how he’d been. Arnie looked at me, waved, then said, “I know I’ve met you before, but I can’t remember exactly where.”

I stood up and refreshed his memory as we shook hands.

“It was down in Bristol four years ago at “The Big-3 for Mountain Mission Kids,” I told him. Palmer immediately gave the thumbs up and, after telling me he was getting old, began to reminisce about that remarkable tournament.

“Wasn’t that the most unbelievable charity golf tournament ever staged?” he asked. By this time, Palmer’s long-time assistant had joined in the conversation while we talked golf at the top of the grandstands. As our conversation wound up he put his arm around my shoulder, shook hands again with the other and thanked me for bringing up our prior meeting. “That was a great day,” he said.

And indeed it was . . .

(L-R) Gold greats Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus during the "charity golf tournament ever staged."
(L-R) Gold greats Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus during the “most unbelievable charity golf tournament ever staged.”

It was March, 2010 when I received a phone call from a guy whose name I didn’t recognize. He told me he wanted to give information about a charity golf tournament that was going to be played in June at The Olde Farm Country Club near Bristol.

According to the caller, it would be a captain’s choice tournament that would have Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, “The Big 3,” as special guests. I thought this had to be a joke, but asked if there was a media contact person. I scribbled down the name Jim McGlothlin when the caller responded.

A month went by, and when I heard another rumor about the event, I decided to investigate further. I made a call to the Olde Farm’s pro shop, introduced myself and explained my affiliation with Play-by-Play Sports magazine, adding that I had heard about a special upcoming tournament and wanted to pursue the procedure for obtaining a media credential. The golf pro was courteous and quickly informed me about the details.

After being told that they were indeed hosting a special-format charity tournament and that it was a very restricted media event with a limited number of spectator tickets available at $1,000 each I told him that I had been told to ask for Jim McGlothlin. There was silence on the other end. Shortly thereafter a reply came: “How many media passes do you need?”

On tournament day while on the way to Bristol with Publisher John Montgomery I admittedly was wondering how this would really play out. Would Allen Funt be waiting?

But this was the real deal. The Olde Farm is a luxurious club with a membership roster that read like a Who’s Who of sports and business: ex-Miami Dolphin’s QB Dan Marino, Super Bowl MVPs Peyton and Eli Manning, baseball Hall-of-Famer George Brett and NASCAR’s Jimmie Johnson, to name a few.

After parking, we were escorted to the front of the stately clubhouse where a relatively small media contingency looked on as Palmer, Nicklaus and Player came out. They talked briefly before heading to the practice tee where the show was just starting.

Gary Player auctioned off some clubs that fetched $50,000. Afterward, the “Big-3” hit golf balls while throwing barbs at each other as the crowd roared.

“Palmer,” said Player, “drove the ball so well in his heyday, he only left the fairway to answer the telephone.” Palmer responded a few shots later by saying, “Gary has deep pockets and short arms. He’s so cheap he wouldn’t give ducks a free drink if he owned Lake Okeechobee.”

After enduring his share of Player’s digs about his gut, Nicklaus finally fired back, “I’ve heard them all 100 times. I just turn my hearing aid off.”

The tournament moved to the first tee where McGlothlin, coal executive and owner of The Olde Farm, introduced “The Big-3.” The beneficiary of the event was Mountain Mission School, that provides education, a home and spiritual guidance to underprivileged children in Grundy. It was the first time the three had played together in a scramble event.

Golf legend Arnold Palmer displays his famous swing.
Golf legend Arnold Palmer displays his famous swing.

The tournament format was indeed unique with a slightly different price tag from the conventional fee of a captain’s choice. Teams of three players each competed for ONE hole against the three icons who have won a total of 34 majors. Nineteen teams (The Olde Farm has 19 holes) were ushered out for their respective opportunity based on a draw of holes. The price tag per team? A nifty $100,000.

The tournament was televised by CBS and spectators were given wired remotes to listen to the “Big-3” chat while they played.

It was during a break that Palmer and his assistant rolled up beside me in Arnie’s cart and I introduced myself. While McGlothlin had encouraged spectators to get autographs, I was a little reluctant since I was inside the ropes. Palmer laughed and said it was fine because we were here to have fun. The three of us talked about everything from golf to weather to attire of some of the well-heeled fans while we waited for the tournament to resume.

At day’s end, a presentation on the 19th green revealed a check for the Mountain Mission endowment fund for an astounding $15.15 million. That total included entry fees, spectator tickets and corporate sponsorships. It nearly doubled the previous record for a single-day charity golf event.

As we were leaving the 19th green, Player looked at me, autographed my hat and said, “Let’s head to the clubhouse. I’m going to do some pushups, Arnie’s going to have a beer and Jack says he’s getting the hell out of here.”

On the return to Roanoke I asked Montgomery if he believed what we had just witnessed. We both just took in the moment, laughed and shook our heads in disbelief. It was truly an unforgettable afternoon with Arnold Palmer and two of the greatest golfers in the history of the game.

Palmer once told a Florida newspaper that asked about his legacy, “I’d just like to think that the people got to know me.”

On that afternoon in Bristol, “The King” made his mark on me.

Bill Turner

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