PGA Tour pros talk about meeting Arnold Palmer for the first time

They say never meet your heroes.

The implication is that doing so will fail to live up to your expectations and the resulting bad experience will negate what they meant to you. While there may be some truth in that adage, they should’ve added one caveat – unless your hero happens to be Arnold Palmer.

Any time spent with Palmer was time well spent, but the first encounter with the Arnold Palmer Invitational’s namesake had a way of leaving a lasting impression.

Here are the remembrances of more than a half-dozen PGA Tour pros past and present, who enjoyed that privilege before his passing in September 2016, and never forgot their first encounter with Mr. Palmer – and for good reason.

Jason Day

2016 - Jason Day with his wife, Ellie, son, Dash and daughter, Lucy pose with Arnold Palmer at No. 18 during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
2016 - Jason Day with his wife, Ellie, son, Dash and daughter, Lucy pose with Arnold Palmer at No. 18 during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

Jason Day with his wife, Ellie, son, Dash and daughter, Lucy pose with Arnold Palmer at No. 18 during the 2016 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

“It was on the fourth tee at Bay Hill, the first year I played there (in 2008). He was driving in his cart making the rounds and he stopped and watched me hit a drive. It was so cool. My fondest memory, of course, was when I won his tournament (in 2016) and you get to have that beverage with him. I walked into his place and he congratulated me and I said, I’ll have whatever you’re having. His was Ketel One and it was on the rocks, and the glass was like this big (holding hands far apart). I was dehydrated but I had to drink it and 20 minutes later I went on Golf Channel for a live interview and I was drunk.”

Peter Jacobsen

Arnold Palmer jokes with Peter Jacobsen after autographing the back of his commemorative Pirates jersey as Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Steve Blass looks on before the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs game Sept. 8.

“I made my PGA Tour debut in 1976 at Pebble Beach Golf Links in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. I managed to shoot 70 at Del Monte Golf Course and that was good enough to make it. So, I hustle over to Monterey Peninsula Golf Club, which was part of the course rotation at the time, and slip on the course teeing off on the back nine as the sun is setting in the Pacific. I played Nos. 10-12 and then cut over to the 16th hole. Suddenly, somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 people round the corner from the 15thgreen to the 16th tee traipsing after none other than Arnold Palmer. He was larger than life to me. That’s when it hit me that I had committed a rookie mistake and jumped in front of him during his practice round.

He hitched his pants, cocked his head as only he could and made a beeline for me. In that moment, my 22-year-old mind raced and I wondered if he would say something like, “Hey, rookie, get out of the way!” Heroes, they say, generally disappoint. But not Arnold. He stuck out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Arnold Palmer. Can I join you?”

He talked to me the entire time as we played those final three holes and gave me a sleeve of a new golf ball he was promoting. He told me to let him know what I thought of the ball, which meant only one thing to me: I had an excuse to speak to one of my boyhood heroes again. When we finished, Arnold said, “Really a pleasure to meet you. Thanks for letting me play with you.”

I remained on the putting green at the 18th hole and I turned to my caddie and said: “Now that was magic right there.”

D.A. Points

D.A. Points celebrates after making his birdie putt on 18 to win the 2017 Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The first encounter with Palmer for D.A. Points revealed the way he loved to help any promising pro reach his potential.

When Points was a PGA Tour rookie in 2005, he wrote a letter to “Mr. Palmer” asking for an invitation to the Arnold Palmer Invitational and decided to hand deliver it.

Here Points picks up the story: “I rolled into the parking lot at Bay Hill and I’m nervous. I’ve never really met him. I’m trying to get myself together and all of a sudden he’s making the turn and he’s right there on the 10th tee.

“I ran up there and introduced myself and told him I appreciated everything he had done for the game and that I would be honored if I could have a chance to play in his tournament . . . Sure enough, a few months later I got a letter with an invitation and I played well.”

Fast forward to the 2009 season when Points earned his way back to the big Tour. But Points wasn’t sure if his status would earn him a spot in January’s Bob Hope Chrysler Classic so he asked Mr. Palmer, the tournament’s honorary host, if he would write a letter on his behalf that might persuade the tournament committee to grant him an exemption.

Done and done. It’s good to know The King.

A grateful Points purchased a “big jug” of Ketel One Vodka and placed it in Palmer’s locker with a thank you note. A few weeks later he bumped into Mr. Palmer and asked if he received his token of appreciation.

“Mr. Palmer said, ‘Oh yeah, thanks for the big bottle of booze,’ ” Points recalled. “He looked at his wife, Kit, and said, ‘This is the guy who is trying to get us drunk.’ ”

Martin Laird

Martin Laird wins the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. At left is Arnold Palmer and Laird’s fiance.

Perhaps because he finished 74th in his debut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2010, Scotland’s Martin Laird missed out on meeting Mr. Palmer that week. But he avoided any chance of that happening again a year later by winning the tournament.

“I literally had never seen him in the locker room or seen him on the range,” Laird told PGA in 2015. “I’d never talked to him. Then I won his tournament. That’s what (made) winning here so special. You come off and you’ve got a legend of the game standing there shaking your hand and congratulating you. That’s obviously something I’ll never forget. It’s always special to meet him and talk to him, but when it’s in that situation, it’s even better.

“You know he’s there before you come up 18. Watching that tournament over the years, you see guys come off and shake his hand. A lot of the time it was Tiger when I was watching. You always think that will be cool to come off and have him standing there congratulating you. You know he’s there watching when you’re on the green. I’m not saying you’re thinking about it, but it’s definitely a big added bonus to winning. For me, that’s my most special win – for that reason.”

And what does he recall from that initial conversation?

“I think I said something like, ‘That’s a tough golf course you’ve got out there,’” Laird said. “And he said something like, ‘Just how I like it.’ It’s all a bit of a blur. After that putt went in on 18 to win, the next half hour was a bit of a blur.”

Rickie Fowler

Rickie Fowler hits his drive on the first hole during the third round of the 2017 Arnold Palmer Invitational golf tournament at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

“I remember playing an AJGA event at Bay Hill and that was a big deal to meet him,” Fowler said. “I thought he was the personification of cool and one of the greats of the game. He took me in from the get-go because I played a lot with Sam (Saunders, his grandson). He’d come watch Sam at the Sunnehanna Amateur, (the men’s amateur tournament in Palmer’s native Pennsylvania).

In 2016, Fowler’s schedule was such that he needed to skip API and he made the drive to Orlando to break the bad news to the King, face-to-face.

“I mean, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” said Fowler, who has been in the field every year since. “It was like I was breaking up with a long-time girlfriend or something.”

“He was a legend,” Fowler added. “I loved the way he played but also the way he was with people.”

Brandt Snedeker

2016 - Brandt Snedeker and his caddie at No. 14 during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
2016 - Brandt Snedeker and his caddie at No. 14 during the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.

Brandt Snedeker

In 2009, Brandt Snedeker suffered through a stretch where he missed the cut in nine of 13 events. Looking for a spark, he called Palmer and asked if he could visit with him in Orlando.

“I thought I’d get 30 minutes of his time, but we ended up sitting in his office upstairs at Bay Hill for two hours talking about golf, life, just everything,” Snedeker recalled to PGA Tour.Com in 2015. “I told him I was having a hard time handling Sundays and pressure and asked him about how to get over that hump.

“He said he never hit a shot he wasn’t 100 percent committed to – it didn’t matter if it was a 3-iron from 200 yards out he thought he was going to make it. Whether he was going to pull the shot off or not he thought he could. He said, ‘People always thought I was aggressive, but I thought I was conservative.’”

Then they headed out to play played and Palmer made birdie at 17 to win their bet. “We had a blast,” Snedeker said.

Rocco Mediate

Rocco Mediate has fond memories of the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. He finished second to Tiger Woods.

Growing up in Greenburg, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Rocco Media idolized Arnold Palmer from a young age. His golf buddies always said they’d arrange for him to play with Palmer at the course where he first learned the game, Latrobe Country Club, one day.

“I think I was 19,” Mediate told Golfweek in 2017. “I got a call from a couple of dear friends of mine, they said, ‘We got a game for you today at Latrobe. Do you want to come over about 10 o’clock?’ They said it’s a lot of money, and they’re backing me. I get there, walk past the pro shop, and there’s Mr. Palmer on the first tee with his shag bag, hitting balls. I promise you, for five minutes, I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t do this.’

“My buddy sees me, and he says ‘Roc, come over here.’ And the second I shook Mr. Palmer’s hand it was like I’d known him for 30 years.

“He taught me to look people in the eye, and you talk to them if you can. ‘Where are you from?’ You talk to them. My first few years on Tour, I was shy. But I learned from him. He kept pounding it into me: He’d say, ‘Look, you’ve got to give it back to them.’ Just being his friend, being able to say, ‘Yeah, that’s my friend over there,’ was huge. I played hundreds of rounds with him. Hundreds. First day we played I shot 69 and he shot 70. I have the $20 bill somewhere.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek