A Golfer of the People, for the People
…and one of golf’s greatest marketing gurus
by Jim Pasero
So who starts a cable television network at the age of 65? Ted Turner—no.
Rupert Murdoch—maybe. Arnold Palmer—ah, yes.
Arnold Palmer’s creation, the Golf Channel, celebrates its tenth
anniversary. Why did Palmer decide ten years ago to start a 24-hour channel
devoted to golf? Because as Palmer told BrainstormNW, “There
was a need to keep golf in the public eye, without outside interference,
without a mediator.” Bringing golf directly to the public has been
being an American legend for more than five decades, Palmer remains a
uniquely modern thinker. And his and co-founder Joe Gibbs’s creation,
the Golf Channel, with its reach into almost 100 million homes on four
continents, is a very modern invention. Palmer may have written large
chapters in American sporting life in the ’50s and ’60s, but
his stewardship of the game moves forward—the emphasis is now international.
As Palmer thinks forward, he continues to underscore themes he first carved
out 50 years ago in American culture—that golf is a game for all
and not just a game for the socially elite or the wealthy nations.
is for everybody,” says Palmer. “Grandparents can golf with
their grandchildren; mothers with their daughters. There are not many
sports where that can happen.” Palmer has also been a strong proponent
of the World Golf Foundation’s First Tee program, a charity that
breaks barriers by bringing the game to inner city young people.
especially focused on the international growth of the Golf Channel, which
happens, not by accident, to parallel the international growth of the
game. “What you will see in golf in the next decade is that international
golf will become more and more popular, and the international tournaments
will become more and more popular, and we at the Golf Channel have the
ability to bring those events to the golfing public.”
sees another role for international golf—a diplomatic one—golf
as a civilizing force. “It would be nice with all the problems and
conflicts throughout the world to bring golf into those countries having
these problems. Iraq, Arabia and Pakistan are now interested in golf.
The more golf gets started in these places, the more influence golf will
have on their political leaders. We can have our conflicts on the golf
ready for the cynics. “Sure you can say introducing golf into conflict
areas is just scratching the surface, but scratching the surface is where
you have to start.”
takes big views, he is entitled. He knows something about changing a nation’s
culture. He did it in America in the 1950s. Legendary sportscaster Vin
Scully once summarized what Palmer did for golf in the 1950s and ’60s.
“In a sport that was high society, he made it ‘High Noon.’”
tells half the story. In the 1950s, Palmer did for golf what Buddy Holly
and Elvis Presley did for music, or what James Dean did for acting—he
made it rock (scrambling out of the woods, charging from behind), and
by doing so he enthralled a nation and invented television golf. He gave
the sport to “everyman.” No wonder a Google search shows Palmer’s
fame to be greater than Holly’s and just short of Presley’s.
was 1960—Arnold Palmer’s stardom went nuclear. He won the
Masters that spring with birdies on the 17th and 18th holes during Sunday’s
final round and defeated Ken Venturi by a shot. Two months later in a
locker room at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, Colo., between the
third and fourth rounds of the U.S. Open, Palmer would tell golf writers
Bob Drum and Dan Jenkins that he would drive the first hole, shoot 65
and defeat Ben Hogan. Drum and Jenkins were pretty skeptical, especially
since the first hole at Cherry Hill was 346-yard par 4, and Hogan already
had four U.S. Open titles. No matter. Palmer drove the green with a mammoth
tee shot, birdied six of the first seven holes, shot 65, and defeated
“The Hawk” Hogan and a kid named Nicklaus. In American sporting
lore, it may not be as famous a moment as Babe Ruth’s called shot
in the 1932 World Series in Chicago, but it’s close.
1960 Palmer reintroduced Americans to the British Open. The British Open
Championship, the 1920s playground of American Bobby Jones and Walter
Hagen, had fallen on hard times (mostly because of the length of World
War II). Palmer’s crossing the Atlantic changed that. He managed
to finish second, a stroke behind Australia’s Kel Nagle. In ’61
and ’62, Palmer won The British Open Championship, bringing prestige
back to the tournament. Palmer and Scotland were a natural fit because,
unlike America, golf was always a public game in Scotland, not a country
wasn’t satisfied just being a sporting legend; he virtually invented
sports marketing. In 1960 he shook hands with Mark McCormack and created
the company International Management Group (IMG), now the world’s
premier sports and lifestyle management and marketing firm. Though McCormack,
Palmer’s business partner (and author of “What They Don’t
Teach You at Harvard Business School”) passed away in 2003, IMG
continues to bring in more than a billion dollars in yearly revenue.
Manougian, president of the Golf Channel, remembers another Palmer invention—
the Champions Tour, which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
“Arnold got the Champions Tour off the ground,” says Manougian.
“When it started, it needed credibility. People would ask, is this
real? But as soon as Arnold started playing in the events, everybody else
did too. The launching and the building of the Champions Tour are due
But it is
at the Golf Channel where Arnold’s signature is most pronounced.
And while the Golf Channel may be on in every bar in every country club
in America, the tone of the channel is for everyman. Palmer, who grew
up the son of a greenskeeper at Latrobe County Club in Pennsylvania (a
club he would later purchase in the 1970s), spent considerable time helping
create the welcoming atmosphere of the cable channel.
I am very
pleased with what has happened at the Golf Channel, says Palmer. It is
wonderful that people notice the station’s embracing approach.
who grew up on Eastmoreland Golf Course, Portland’s municipal course,
shares Palmer’s attitude about golf as the everyman sport and underscores
his sentiments on the station’s philosophy. “When we positioned
the Golf Channel brand we wanted to make the viewers feel that when they
are watching Craig Kann or Kelly Tilghman on “The 19th Hole”
that they would love to sit down and talk golf with them. We want the
show to be an extension of their own view on golf. What they would do
with their buddies—talking about where Tiger’s shot at Augusta
on 16 ranks in the history books. We want our product to reflect that.”
sees Palmer weekly, sometimes daily. They are neighbors in Orlando, and
they talk regularly about programming. Manougian says Palmer’s input
usually breaks down along these lines:
it is programming that involves Arnold himself, he pays attention to the
different levels of details. If it is about other shows, I will say to
Arnold, ‘What do you think of doing x, y, z?’ He says, ‘Here
is what you might want to think about…’ He sees things that
a lot of people might miss. He stays up at 30,000 feet.”
And if it’s
about growing the station, Manougian says, “He stays on the big
picture, such as the Golf Channel going after tournament rights, asking
‘Is that good for the channel?’ He understands the world of
golf, he understands the viewers, and he understands the viewer perspective.”
In Palmer’s role as custodian of the game, one issue concerns him:
“Technology is one area of concern. We need to work on slowing down
the golf ball. If we slow down the golf ball adequately, the great courses
will be great for another 100 years. This is important to me, and to Nicklaus.
We are interested in doing all we can on this issue.”
ball is threatening to undermine the courses, forcing the game to eventually
choose between the ball and the “great” courses, like Pebble
Beach, St. Andrews, Augusta, Pinehurst, Oakmont or Troon, where the game’s
great memories were made. Portland Golf Club, which hosted the 1947 Ryder
Cup and the 1946 PGA Championship, is an example of a course that is now
obsolete for championship play. Palmer doesn’t want to see that
happen to other famous courses.
hope we don’t have a special ball. I don’t want that,”
says Palmer. His fear is that manufacturers may not agree to slow down
the ball and that governing bodies of tournament golf will have to adopt
a slower ball during tournament play to protect historic courses. “The
Royal and Ancient, the USGA, the PGA, and the PGA TOUR, all the international
organizations that are in control of the game, are involved. We are having
those talks now.”
why he thinks the governing bodies need to be involved. “It would
be nice to think that the golf manufacturers would say, ‘Okay, we
will reduce the ball voluntarily and slow it down.’ That would be
a major step, but I don’t think they will. We will have to get enough
influence to them.”
golf’s historic courses is typical Palmer. He’s been a steward
of the game for five decades, and his ongoing vision for the sport may
in the long run be remembered as much as his legendary play and eight
major championship titles.
remembers introducing Palmer to his parents who were visiting from Oregon.
“I introduced him to my mother and father, and I wondered what my
dad would say to Arnold. Dad turned to him and said, ‘Hey, I played
your course (Bay Hill) and it’s a pretty tough course for us old
guys.’ And Arnold, without hesitating, said to him, ‘It’s
a good thing that I’m not old.’ He doesn’t think of
himself in those terms. It just isn’t his mental make up.
made golf popular on TV. He is the ultimate spokesperson in the world
of golf, the ultimate spokesperson in all of sports,” says Manougian.
“He is a world-renowned golfer, but he is also the greatest guy
to live next door to. He’s full of optimism, he’s charismatic,
he cares about people. Put all those things together and you have a rare
why Palmer’s contribution to golf—five decades strong—continues
to be so huge.
BrainstormNW - May 2005