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Scott Ostler

Biggest Hotdog? Let's Look for a Meaty Answer

March 26, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

Let's say someone held a contest to pick the sports world's biggest hotdog.

The nominees would be people such as Reggie Jackson, Hulk Hogan, Magic Johnson, John McEnroe, Cheryl and Reggie Miller as an entry, Mark Gastineau . . .

And the winner?

Arnold Palmer.

Nobody else would be close.

That's right, we're talking about the golfer who last won on the PGA tour in 1973, who is currently a 57-year-old, gray-haired grandfather, a non-party animal, a corporate tycoon whose idea of shaking up the Establishment is to lead a campaign to outlaw golf carts on the Senior PGA tour, who has never thrown a golf club or kicked a caddy, and has never even spiked a golf ball in anger or elation.

This is a hotdog?

The biggest.

In order to qualify for hotdog status, one must: (1) Have an exciting game, a flair, a unique style; (2) play to the crowd, and (3) enjoy the spotlight.

Nowhere does it say a hotdog has to be a jerk, even part-time, although many are. One or two famous hotdogs, for instance, involve the fans by dropping their pants.

Arnie is not a pants-dropper. He is a pants-hitcher. He still uses that simple tug of the belt to convey the message, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but this is Arnold Palmer's golf tournament."

It's a hotdog gesture, like Gastineau's dancing or Jackson's freeze-frame homer watch, although more endearing.

In his glory days, the pants hitch would usually be accompanied by a gallant charge, and a victory.

"Arnold Palmer is the greatest Sunday player ever," is how Mac O'Grady puts it.

A hotdog, after all, isn't a hotdog unless he can deliver.

Palmer does his hotdogging on the Senior Tour these days. Tuesday, he was playing in a five-man skins game at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley, kicking off a senior tournament. About 7,000 fans turned out to watch five wealthy senior citizens play golf for money. Palmer's presence accounted for approximately 7,000 of those fans.

On the 17th hole, Arnie had a 30-foot putt from off the green for a birdie, which would have earned him $16,000. He had his caddy pull the flag, then rolled the putt directly over the hole, hippity-hop, to the other side.

Even for a trillionaire like Arnie, that had to hurt. Stepping onto the 18th tee, he turned to the gallery, smiled and said amiably, "Can you believe that ball jumped out of that hole?"

"You shoulda left the stick in," someone said.

Palmer, instead of selecting a club to wrap around the fan's neck, actually chuckled and said, "I almost did leave it in."

OK, not Hall of Fame repartee, but Palmer really does reach out to the gallery. He has elevated nice to an art form.

"I was taught even before I knew I would be a golfer, you need to treat people as you want to be treated," Palmer said after the round, as he found a quiet corner of the press tent and sat down with a reporter and a ham sandwich. "My dad drove that home to me. I have always understood people's position. Helping them enjoy the game was part of my job."

That last sentence should be chiseled into the pedestal of a giant bronze frankfurter somewhere, the hotdogger's motto. What makes Palmer the top dog is that he not only hotdogs up a storm without ever offending anyone, using the golf course as theater, but that he's been doing it for so many years, the last 33 as a pro.

About 20 years ago, Palmer swore to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player that he would never retire. Does he still plan to play forever?

"I already have," Palmer said, laughing.

It's a tossup whether he keeps playing because he's good for the game, or vice versa. Palmer certainly loves golf.

How much?

Well, he mentioned that one activity he would like to find time for is art, specifically painting. He'd like to try his hand.

What would he like to paint pictures of?

Golf courses.

"I play for a lot of reasons," Palmer said. "One is the fact I can't see myself standing around. I need the action. It's my personality, my makeup, that I have to be doing something, working, having some objective to keep me going."

His current golf objective is helping establish the Senior tour, and winning some of its money.

"I still get the same feeling out there," he said. "The tingling is still there, and the rolls."

The rolls?

"Stomach rolls."

Butterflies, he meant. Arnie is still in great shape.

Palmer, of course, ruined golf for an entire generation of young pros. He has been an impossible act to follow, as a player and a personality. The problem with the PGA tour today, people say, is there are no Arnolds.

"I think the younger players are misunderstood a little," Palmer said. "The thing that's happened over the years is that the picture has changed, in that the guys today are really businessmen. They are playing golf as a business, and that gives them a little different approach than we had years ago. I approach it as a living, but it's still a game.

"The personalities are there, they're just so intent on what they're doing, a lot of them get that same look. The time will come, though, when players like Greg Norman and Payne Stewart, as they become more successful, people will come to know their personalities.

"And it's not a matter of just being outgoing. Ben Hogan was no living comic. He was a very serious man, but he was very popular."

When it comes to popularity, though, Hogan couldn't carry Palmer's niblick. Who could?

If they gave a sports Nobel Prize for warmth and charm, Palmer would have several.

They don't, so Arnie will have to settle for this humble award--hotdog of the century.

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