It must have been back in the late '60s, at some point in my brother's extended college career, when I visited him in Washington D.C., and we became fixated one evening on the marvels of the Rolling Rock beer can design.
First of all, it was a half can, drinkable in about one pass, which made it a curiosity anyway. Then there was this horse on the label for no clear reason (it always seems a risk to me to associate one's beer with horses), an even more mysterious "33" imprinted at the end of the usual spiel about the beer's "mountain springs" origins, and a rope border that was spatially mesmerizing. (Late '60s, remember.)
So we laughed our way through quite a few cans. I don't recall particularly loving the beer, but that wasn't the point then. But I felt kindly toward it, not only because it was visually amusing, but because it was brewed in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
"Any beer brewed in Arnold Palmer's hometown can't be all bad," I used to say.
In this regard, at least, I haven't changed. I still feel kindly toward the beer -- still brewed in Arnold Palmer's hometown, if the brand is now marketed by Labatt USA -- though it would never be a beer I'd particularly choose to drink: I'm not fond of mainstream lagers, brewed with corn and/or rice adjuncts to the malt bill.
But I'd certainly drink a Rolling Rock over, say, a Budweiser or any "lite" beer on the planet. What did they ever do for my golf game?
I grew up in the era of Palmer's heyday. He was my parents' favorite player, he was my favorite player, he was millions of golf fans' favorite player. It would be almost impossible to overestimate his charisma then, and in truth he's lost none of it. Though his skills have eroded over time, Palmer has kept right on playing, to the great pleasure of the fans and, clearly, to himself.
He's been going through a series of farewell appearances in recent years, including his own Bay Hill Invitational in 2003, and each occasion amounts to an emotional groundswell. The big one could come in April -- the 2004 Masters will be his last: "And that's news," Arnold told me in December.
I'd met Palmer before, but this was my first face-to-face opportunity; I'd been lucky enough to snag an assignment to interview him at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, his winter home, office, fiefdom. The King bought the property B.D. -- Before Disney -- when the area didn't even amount to a backwater.
He eventually redesigned the original Dick Wilson layout into the splendid course it is today, home to the annual Bay Hill Invitational, won by Tiger Woods an astonishing four years in a row.
My luck continued to be rather astonishing, too, when later in the afternoon I wound up playing 18 at Bay Hill -- with Palmer! I can thank Lee Havre for that. Havre is the Commissioner of the daily Bay Hill Shootout, where five-man teams of anywhere from 15 to 50 members put up $50 to play a sort-of Stableford round, with the three best balls used for each hole. Havre, a former car dealer in Ohio, has been tracking the daily teams, results and payouts since 1986.
Palmer plays when in town, if he has the time and inclination, as he did that day. Havre accommodatingly put us together in a fivesome that included PGA Tour pro Robert Damron and his father. Any other day of my life it would have been thrill enough just to play with Damron. But with Palmer, too?
Of the round with Arnold, I could go on and on -- and will be happy to, over a beer, to anyone who asks. Suffice it to say that I was in a constant state of barely contained glee, with the full knowledge over 18 holes that I was experiencing a personal thrill that cut across a few dozen different levels of emotional sensation -- all of them pleasant, if a nostalgic few bittersweet.
But this is a beer column, after all, so after the closing handshakes we did what any other golf fivesome would do, retire to the clubhouse bar. There the promotional napkins for Ketel One Vodka say, "I'll have what Arnold Palmer is having." Palmer has been partial enough to Ketel One that he's even signed a marketing agreement with the company, along with fellow pro Peter Jacobson.
But there's nothing like a beer for a good post-round quencher, and I was intrigued to see Palmer downing a Michelob Ultra.
(I suppose I'll have to address the low-carbohydrate beer question at some point, though my initial question is: Why bother?)
I was drinking a Sam Adams Boston Lager myself, as flavorful a beer as one can hope to find in some clubhouses, and as we toted up the scores and I passed my card over to Arnold to, ah, attest with an autograph, I asked him why he wasn't drinking a Rolling Rock?
"Let's get a couple of greens," Arnold said agreeably, proving he does have loyalty to his own hometown brewery, which he began to talk about. I opted for another Sam Adams, but when the beers came -- including Rock Green Light, Rolling Rock's low-carb entry, I asked Arnold, "Do you know what that '33' stands for?"
Palmer said, "Sure. There are 33 words on the back of the label, and 1933 was the year Prohibition ended."
We counted 'em up and he was absolutely right, although I've subsequently heard another plausible explanation, that there are 33 letters in the beer's ingredients: malt, rice, corn, hops, brewer's yeast, water.
So there we sat, chomping peanuts and downing brew, and soon talking about the superlative playing career of Dow Finsterwald, who joined us. The 1958 PGA Championship winner is an old friend and neighbor of Palmer's, apparently holding no grudges for losing a playoff against Arnold in the 1962 Masters.
Palmer pointed out that Finsterwald had finished in the money in 72 consecutive tournaments. Indeed, he was second only to Byron Nelson's 113 consecutive cuts made -- at least until a few golfers named Irwin, Nicklaus and Woods moved past him. But Finsterwald is still fifth on the all-time list. He started to modesty protest all this when Palmer shushed him up: "Hey, I'm trying to brag on you here, you ^&&#@£!" In short, it was like any other post-round brewfest, with jokes and joshing, except that I was sitting there with two of the greatest golfers of the late 20th century. Well, beer is nothing if not democratic.
As we finally walked out of the clubhouse, my mind was rolling and rocking from the day's events, and I was happy to know I had one to tell the grandchildren. I had played golf with the King, which was fantasy-fulfillment enough. But that's not all kids: Arnold Palmer bought me a beer.
Tom Bedell has written about golf and golf travel for American Airlines' luxury magazine Celebrated Living since 1999, and has contributed to Travel & Leisure Golf, Golf Connoisseur, Virtuoso Life, Lexus Magazine, Acura Style, Tee It Up, American Way, The Met Golfer and many others. He is currently the travel editor at Troon Golf & Travel.
We all love golf course rankings, but there's quite a bias involved, huh? Host a major championship and you're basically guaranteed a spot on the list. What about the average duffer who's more impressed with the beer list than the slope/rating - or prefers friendliness over the fine, imported lotion in the locker room? Where's our list, hackers? Answer: Right here.
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