Monday, September 26, 2016

My Arnold Palmer Moment

Watching The Golf Channel’s original movie presenting the life and career of Arnold Palmer had me riveted. I was not around in the middle and late fifties as Arnie caught the attention of everyone. Nor did I witness the birth of Arnie’s Army. I was amazed at his ability to transcend the sport and “rule” over many aspects of the modern-day sports figure and celebrity: televised sports, fan base, owning and flying a private jet, IMG partnership, golf course design and infrastructure support, endorsements, The Golf Channel, Arnold Palmer Hospital and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies. I smiled when I saw the picture of him with Olympic champion-turned Hollywood movie icon Esther Williams and then Supermodel Kate Upton. Little does Mr. Palmer know that he caught the attention of another “covergirl” twenty-two years ago.

              It was 1992 and the seniors were playing at Saucon Valley Country Club’s Old Course in Bethlethem, PA. It was July and I had completed my first year teaching physics at Delaware Valley Regional High School in Frenchtown, NJ.
           
            A friend of mine had dropped by to chat on his way over to the Senior Open. He happened to be a sports editor of a local and at the time largest weekly newspaper in NJ.  “What’s the Senior Open?” I asked.

            He proceeded to explain that it was a golf championship put on by the United States Golf Association. In this case, men of a certain age (50-years plus) and skill level were competing for our national championship.

            It sounded interesting to me.  I enjoyed sports but growing up on a farm left little time for after-school activities. Actually, no time for sports, organized or otherwise, were part of my upbringing. In my own mind, I lettered in manure shoveling and hay baling. But still, the Senior Open sounded pretty exciting and the event was being held in my own back yard.

            “Name three professional golfers and you can come with me,” he said.

            Now I was in trouble.  I sat down on the couch and thought a bit before I answered. This was an all-or-nothing type deal. I closed my eyes and thought hard.

            “Arnold Palmer,” was my first answer. I paused, still thinking, trying to remember news stories about golf earlier in the year. Some of my students were on the golf team and would talk about it. I know that I asked them who their favorite golfers were just like you would ask about a favorite color. Think, Lydia, think!

            “Okay, Arnold Palmer,” I started again.

            “You already said him,” he interrupted, ”you are running out of time.”

            And then I remembered, they were talking about the U.S. Open earlier this year at Pebble Beach, who won? What was his name? It was near the end of the school year and some teachers had it on in their rooms. Got it!

            “Tom Kite!” I declared.

            “Name one more,” he said,” and I need to get going soon just a couple more minutes.”

            I was blank. I kept going back to my students talking about it at school. And I had seen bits and pieces on television. Just one name. I just needed one name.

            “I will give you a hint.” he offered,” Think about good ole St. Nick.”

            Sounded familiar. Writing this now is so funny because I could name golfers male and female in bunches. But back then, I did not golf myself and did not follow the sport.

            “Nicklaus?” I said thinking it sounded something like that.

            “What is his first name?” he challenged.

            I really did not know. As I sit here typing this story it seems impossible, but truthfully I did not know Jack Nicklaus’ first name.

            I did get to go to the Open championship that day. And I got to see a lot of golf. But the biggest thrill for me was following Mr. Palmer.  It was so cool how he played. He really cared and tried and played with heart and gusto.

            Near the end of my day there.… a huge crowd was following him… I cannot tell you who his fellow-competitor was. But I can tell you, that when I perched myself up on a large rock and waved madly at him, Mr. Palmer pointed at me, smiled and waved.

            And I was hooked! That was it. It was all it took.  My friend (now husband) and I watched that “other golfer” - Jack Nicklaus - on our way out. He proceeded to hit both flagsticks on the last two holes we watched. Pretty cool.

            But what stuck in my memory, even as I write 22 years later?

            Arnold Palmer pointed, smiled and waved back at me that day.

            Thank you, Mr. Palmer.  You hooked me on a sport for life and ten years later I would be lucky enough to land the cover of the United States Golf Association’s 2002-2003 edition of The Rules of Golf. I am the unidentified female golfer perched above a bunker looking at a ball with a horrible lie.

            The excitement of that day at Saucon Valley, along with plenty of help from my husband, spurred me into a golf career. Becoming aware of the game in the early 1990s while teaching physics in high school, I later became a serious player, started the first high school varsity girls’ golf team program in Hunterdon County, NJ, continued coaching for seven record-breaking seasons (the final two, winning the NJSIAA TOC state championship) along with creating and directing a Girls Go Golfing junior program for girls ages six to 18.

            I also traveled to Lithuania (I am a dual citizen) in 2004 and played in their National Championship (though the country was in the rudimentary stages of the sport). I won the event (beating all the men as well), but more importantly put on golf clinics at the country’s only(in 2004) golf course.

Later that year I represented Lithuania in the World Amateur Team Golf Championship in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, I became ill early that week, could barely walk and failed to play the final two rounds. And to this day am still battling a mysterious disease that has significantly limited my play.

            However, I continued to support the sport and ran a Girls Go Golfing program in New Jersey for four years until my illness forced me to step down.  

I still blog occasionally (www.girlsgogolfing.blogspot.com) and remained a volunteer albeit electronic mentor/coach to the high school girls golf team through the 2014 season.

I am the lone female member of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Golf Committee (tenure 2008 -2018.) My husband and I direct the NJSIAA’s north sectional qualifying tournament forhigh school girls golf teams at Stanton Ridge golf and country club in Whitehouse, NJ.

I am a member of the French Creek Golf Club in Elverson, Pennsylvania the layout designed by Gil Hanse in 2004. Of course, Hanse is now linked to building the 2016 Olympic Course in Argentina.

            I am determined to learn how to manage the latest iteration of my illness (systemic exertion intolerance disease) and soon return to full time supporting the sport, especially for girls and young women.

            Thank you Mr. Palmer!









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