The King held court at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in late June.
We're talking about The King, as in Arnold Palmer, the man who lent his expertise to the design and building of Gillette Ridge, which is being hailed as one of the best new layouts in the Northeast.
As is his custom, Palmer, winner of 58 PGA Tour events and seven Majors, flew himself into the Bloomfield area in his personal jet (a Citation 10). Arnie has logged more than 700 hours in the air as a pilot. Even at the age of 75, there's no slowing this guy down! Palmer arrived at the course in late morning, much to the delight of the media and invited guests.
After the obligatory photo ops, Arnie conducted an informative and entertaining clinic where he showed he could still hit the ball with remarkable purity and distance. He and longtime friend Bob Kay of West Hartford, chatted with one another during the demonstration. Kay and Palmer became fast buddies when Arnie was serving in the U.S. Coast Guard in New London during the 1950's and have remained close ever since.
“I have heard about 1,000 tips on how to play golf better,” said Palmer to the crowd. “The one thing I stress to you more than anything is stretching before you play. I stretch a half hour every day the morning, and it allows me to continue playing at my age.”
Following the demonstration those of us in attendance followed Arnie around nine holes at Gillette, which he had never played. Despite his age Palmer played from the tips and acquitted himself nicely on the challenging layout.
Perhaps the most amusing moment came when Arnie approached the point where his tee shot landed on Number 16, a treacherous par-four that calls for a second shot over a wetlands to an elevated green guarded by bunkers. "Oh, my," Arnie said as he pondered his second shot. We know Arnie, we have felt the same way. But the King stepped up and hit a five-wood that found the small putting surface.
As we followed Arnie around the course, I had a chance to speak with him and ask a few questions.
"One of the things I’m most pleased about is the efforts to grow the game among people who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play in the past," he said. "Programs like the First Tee have been tremendous is getting kids involved in the game and reaching out to all aspects of society."
Arnie also said he feels the game at the professional level is as good as it has ever been.
"We have some great personalities in the game with Tiger, Ernie and Phil and that brings attention." But he declined to say that the PGA Tour is any deeper than when he played. "We had some really good players back then," he said with a smile.
Arnie pointed to the growth in the PGA Tour over the last few decades.
"When I started out we were getting $1,200 for first place and only 15 places paid out. At Bay Hill (his annual tournament) we had a $100,000 purse 28 years ago and now its up to $5 million. I’m pleased to see what has happened to the game and to think that I may have had something to do with it."
And on the state of the game: "Some people say we are in a bit of a lull right now, but it won’t last. We're still building a lot of courses and the rest of the world is catching on fast to the game. We built our first golf course in China and the country now has some 300 courses with more on the way."
Arnie was pleased with the final design of Gillette Ridge, which hosted a Futures Tour event this summer and is scheduled to hold a number of top regional tournaments in the near future.
"I've got some great memories of Hartford (he won the Insurance City Open twice) and I've made some wonderful friends, like Bob Kay, here. It's rewarding to have the opportunity to come in and help design a golf course like this that will be enjoyed by so many people and is a real championship course."