The legendary Arnold Palmer was a worldwide presence, but much that shaped his life and his career took place within the borders of New Jersey.
As early as 1952, an amateur Palmer, stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard Base in Cape May, was playing New Jersey courses and honing his skills. By 1954, he won the U.S. Amateur Championship that paved the way for one of the greatest careers in the history of golf and made Palmer that worldwide legend that he would become.
He also claimed one of his 62 PGA Tour victories in New Jersey at the 1967 Thunderbird Classic at Upper Montclair Country Club in Clifton, beating his rival, Jack Nicklaus, by one stroke. Earlier that same year, Nicklaus hung up a four-shot victory over Palmer in the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield.
The Thunderbird Classic would be played four times at Upper Montclair, first in 1962, then in 1966, ’67 and ’68. When Palmer, then a 32-year-old touring pro out of Latrobe, Pa., teed off at Upper Montclair in 1962, he was the golfer who would be known as the King, the golfer everybody wanted to see.
Two months earlier, he had won his third Masters and later that summer he would win his second consecutive British Open.
Five years later, Palmer was looking up to Nicklaus at Baltusrol. It was a historically significant tournament for a number of reasons. First, it was Jack Nicklaus winning the seventh of his still-standing record of 18 major championships. In beating Palmer by four shots, he set the scoring record with a total of 275 on the Lower course. Also, it was Palmer’s fourth runner-up finish in the event.
Three months after the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, the PGA Tour returned to New Jersey, and Palmer responded with one of his classic final-round charges at Upper Montclair to reverse the finishing order.
Palmer began the last day five shots out of the lead, with Billy Casper enjoying a three-shot cushion when the day began. But Palmer eventually rolled in a 10-foot birdie putt on the final green. An hour later, it was Nicklaus missing a six-footer for birdie that would have forced a playoff.
It was Palmer's fourth win of the season, giving him his highest victory total since 1963.
Year later, Palmer was a fixture on the PGA Senior Tour playing annually in the Cadillac NFL Classic, conducted at Upper Montclair from 1993-2002.
In July, 2000, Palmer, then 70, competed in his 1,000th tour event at the $1.3 million Instinet Classic at TPC at Jasna Polana in Princeton. At that time, Palmer joined Miller Barber, Gay Brewer and Dave Eichelberger as the only players to compete in 1,000 events.
Palmer was honored at a ceremony prior to the start of play on the practice range of the TPC at Jasna Polana. His last win came in 1988 at the Senior Crestar Classic.
In 2002, Palmer was on hand for the grand opening of a nine-hole executive course he designed in Monroe, N.J., as part of Regency at Monroe, an adult community built around the golf course.
And don’t forget the many visits Palmer made to Far Hills, N.J., home of the United States Golf Association Museum and Arnold Palmer Center for Golf History. It is home to the world’s premier collection of golf artifacts and memorabilia.
The USGA Museum is an educational institution dedicated to fostering an appreciation for the game of golf, its participants, and the Association. It serves as a caretaker and steward for the game’s history, supporting the Association’s role in ensuring the game’s future.
Palmer’s early life in New Jersey coincided with his three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard a decision he made following the death of close friend Bud Worsham, his college roommate at Wake Forest College, and enlisted in the United States Coast Guard.
According to The Birth of the Birdie, First 100 Years at Atlantic City Country Club authored by William E. Kelly, Bucky Worsham was head pro at Atlantic City in 1951 and 1952. Palmer had attended Wake Forest College on a golf scholarship.
“Arnold was a roommate of my brother in college (Wake Forest) when he was killed in an automobile accident. When he joined the Coast Guard and was stationed in Cape May, and he would come up and stay with me and play Atlantic City every few weeks or so. He played in a few tournaments, but he was playing so infrequently, he didn’t win,” Worsham said.
In his introduction to James W. Finegan’s Centennial Tribute to Golf in Philadelphia, Palmer wrote: “In 1952 and 1953, I was in the Coast Guard, stationed at Cape May, and was able to find time for some golf. Most of it was along the Jersey Shore – Atlantic City, Cape May, Wildwood. I played quite a few rounds at Atlantic City Country Club. Leo Fraser was running Atlantic City then and sometimes there were some pretty good matches against some of the better amateurs in the area.
“I remember playing against Harry Elwell, and also against Beetle Beirne, who was from Riverton,” Palmer wrote.
Palmer also played the course that is now Greate Bay, where Eddie O’Donnell was the long-time pro.
“I was sitting in the pro shop with Harry Elwell and this young man comes in dressed in uniform and asks for the club professional. ‘That’s me,’” Eddie said. Palmer explained that his father was the club pro at Latrobe C.C. and asked O’Donnell sheepishly, “Can I play, Pro?”
O’Donnell asked Palmer if he was an officer. “No, I’m just an ordinary seaman,” Palmer said. “Then you can play for free,” O’Donnell said. “If he was an officer, I would have made him pay.”
Palmer went and played the course with Elwell, the club champion and best golfer around.
O’Donnell said: “He was a good kid, a good golfer, but nobody ever heard of Arnold Palmer at the time. We played a number of times. He eventually played Atlantic City more and he and (owner) Leo Fraser became good friends. He wasn’t in college anymore. He was a young amateur who was getting the experience of playing regularly with good professionals, so he must have learned something.”
Palmer went on to win the 1954 U.S. Amateur Championship.
“What I liked about him was that he could have been the lead man on the U.S. Walker Cup team, but he turned it down because he wanted to turn pro,” O’Donnell said.
Years later, O’Donnell watched Palmer play an exhibition match in Florida with Sam Snead. As he walked off the green Palmer stopped to say hello, and asked about Elwell, who had since passed away. Palmer then stayed and talked to O’Donnell, holding up the match for a while, paying his respects to a small link in his life’s chain that took him to the pinnacle of golf.
According to a Summer, 2016, magazine article entitled “Wildwood Days” by Dan Scofield in GAP (Golf Association of Philadelphia) Magazine, during the summer of 1951, Palmer practiced and played at Wildwood while stationed at Cape May’s Coast Guard base.
“When he first came here, he was kind of a hot-shot golfer. Everyone knew who he was when he walked in,” said Dr. Cary Stone, a member of Wildwood for nearly 50 years. “Somebody made him a bet he wouldn’t break par, and guess what, he didn’t.”
Palmer used Wildwood’s facilities and championship track while serving his three years in the Coast Guard.
“I was joking around with Arnie one day down at Bay Hill, where he hosts his tournament each year,” said Stone. “He asked me what course I was from and I told him,” Oh, you probably don’t know it. It’s a little course in Cape May County called Wildwood. I asked him ‘Have you ever played it?’ He laughed and said to me, ‘Oh, only every day.’ “
On March 1 of this year, Arnold sent a letter to Wildwood C.C. to congratulate the club on its 100thanniversary. In the letter he wrote: “While I was in the Coast Guard stationed in Cape May in the early 1950s, I used to play golf at Wildwood every chance I got. I enjoyed my time there and have some great memories of those days.”