How two dissimilar men with identical competitive drives made golf a national pastime—long before Tiger Woods was born.
When Arnold “the King” Palmer, son of a country-club groundskeeper, joined the professional tour in 1955, the world of golf was considerably different. It was a time when players, invariably white, puffed on cigarettes between shots, flicking butts to the ground between putts. Sportswriter O’Connor (The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball, 2006) conducted hundreds of interviews to recreate that bygone era, which was irrevocably altered by the magnetic presence of the charismatic Palmer. The King’s herculean drives, leading-man looks and fan-friendly approach spurred an exponential increase in the sport’s popularity, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Jack Nicklaus, ten years his junior, that golf became a juggernaut. From a social standpoint, the Golden Bear was everything Palmer was not: overweight, overbearing and unwilling to pander to fans. He was Palmer’s equal as a competitor, however, and his talent was even more prodigious. Though Nicklaus came to dominate golf, Palmer managed to steal the spotlight on more than one occasion. Their rivalry extended into business; Arnie’s broad appeal secured him unprecedented success as a pitchman, while Jack’s obsessive attention to detail made him the premier course designer. Inextricably linked by virtue of their obvious differences and undeniable talent, the two adopted a complex, quasi-sibling rivalry, with Arnie attempting to foil the upstart Jack’s attempts to dethrone him. Nicklaus was unquestionably the superior player, but the court of public opinion often favored Palmer. O’Connor offers thrillingly dramatic depictions of each on-course encounter, and his comprehensive interviews humanize the two legends while contextualizing their roles in the game’s history.
Obviously an admirer of both subjects, the author hesitates to probe too deeply into their less admirable traits, but that’s a minor flaw in this exemplary sports history.