Arnold Palmer ‘begins the boom’ in high country golf
Vail CO, Colorado
Arnold Palmer remembers well the day he arrived in Colorado to take part in the internationally recognized Vail golf academy bearing his name.
He remembers that day more because of the heartbreak that preceded it than the event he was flying in on a private jet to attend. It was late ” June 1968. The previous afternoon Palmer, the squinted-eyed, blond-haired charmer of an American sports legend, had succumbed to Julius Boros at the PGA Championship. He finished second, one stroke back, thus settling for another agonizing near-miss at the one major he never won.
Thirty-eight years old at the time, Palmer was scheduled to film a commercial in California the Monday and Tuesday following the PGA, and was to have flown in to Eagle on Wednesday to greet the 500 boys attending the academy. But plans changed and so the Monday-morning call came to Dick Hauserman in Vail that Palmer would instead be flying in that day. This posed a problem. The Eagle airport was having its runway resurfaced and wouldn’t be open until Wednesday.
Hauserman, who introduced himself to me as “the first person ‘ever lived in Vail” when I met him late last year, was in charge of all academy operations back then. He had leaped over obstacle after obstacle to make the event a reality, and he wasn’t about to come up solutionless now. He called his friend Jack East over in Leadville, hoping Palmer’s jet could land there. East told Hauserman some bad news: Leadville’s airport was closed, too, with open trenches around the landing strip for the pending installation of night lights. Palmer’s jet landed there anyway.
East, a 1960s mountain radio character who owned the Cloud City’s only radio station, knew a score when he heard one. He broadcast to his listeners after getting off the phone with Hauserman that the great Arnold Palmer would be landing in their tiny town in a half hour. When Hauserman arrived to greet his famous guest, Palmer was already surrounded by hundreds of people as East conducted the biggest live interview in Leadville radio history.
And so that was how Palmer’s immeasurable impact on golf in the Vail Valley ” and in Colorado’s High Country ” began: with the sports world’s most popular figure standing next to a private jet in an old, gnarly mining community that would’ve sooner closed every last one of its old Western saloons than consider golf as a primary summer leisure activity.
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The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy opened with a bang heard across the nation and ended with a wounded whimper, dissolving after just one year never to be heard from again. Its premise was genius, which was part of the reason so many involved with the venture expected it to last longer than it did.
Vail in the 1960s was still busy establishing itself as an international ski destination to rival Aspen and Sun Valley. Its executives (if you could call anyone such a thing in that lean era of primitive mountain towns) didn’t have time for golf. But golf had time for Vail ” and the rest of the state’s ski towns ” as the greens explosion has since shown us.
The golf academy grew from the root of a conversation between Hauserman and Vail resident John Murchison, as well as a man named Alan Humphrey. Humphrey was from Dallas and knew little about life at 9,000 feet. Still, when talk turned to ways that Vail might market itself better to the summer golfing crowd, Humphrey suggested organizing a camp for boys that would undoubtedly bring the parents, too. Vail had only a nine-hole course at the time, but Hauserman and Murchison liked Humphrey’s idea and decided to see what could become of it.
Hauserman, a gregarious and intelligent man who still makes his home in the Vail Valley for much of the year, decided that in order for the academy (they didn’t like the word “camp”) to succeed, it needed a big name. He took the ambitious approach and got in touch with an old friend from Cleveland, Mark McCormack. McCormack, once described by the BBC as “the undisputed king of sports marketing,” was Arnold Palmer’s agent at that time.
“I felt like Arnold Palmer was at the peak of his career, and he should be interested,” Hauserman recalls. Indeed, McCormack and Palmer believed in the potential of a golf academy in a mountain town, and they told Hauserman to go ahead with it.
Within a few months, Hauserman and Frank Abramoff, who was president of Arnold Palmer Enterprises in New York, secured PGA pros who were friends of Palmer to appear at each session; college coaches to serve as instructors; and college players to work as counselors. They even brought in Ernie Baca, the caddie master at one of the premier clubs in California, to keep track of golf bag storage. The academy was to take place on a wide grassy swath that now houses the Eagle-Vail course.
On Nov. 27, 1967, eight months before the vision would become a reality, Hauserman and the other organizers hosted an announcement gala at the Four Seasons restaurant on New York City’s Park Avenue. Palmer’s singular, legendary lure was obvious that night, as Howard Cosell, Jim McKay, Johnny Carson and writers from Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Look, Newsweek, Golf Digest and Ski magazines attended. Stories appeared in more than 150 newspapers around the country. Vail had never received so much press, not even for its skiing.
By the time June rolled around, the hype was almost suffocating. A nationally syndicated sports cartoon picked up the story and ran a series of installments that lasted for six weeks. Country club families from all corners of America planned their summer vacations around the golf academy sessions, doing whatever it took to ensure their children learned about golf from the player with an army all his own.
The academy itself went over like a sunny day. The players ” boys aged 12 to 17 ” learned from their instructors and met the great Arnold Palmer; the parents got to indulge in summer mountain living at its finest. Still, the makeshift dining and housing facilities were expensive and, Hauserman later wrote in his book The Inventors of Vail, “inadequate” for so many kids. Additionally, transporting 500 boys (and their gear) to and from the nine-hole course on the other side of the county proved too difficult to manage ” and the small course itself could not accomodate that many golfers. Making matters worse, the owners of the Eagle-Vail land on which the academy was based yearned to develop their prized property. So, after months of effort to prepare for the big event, it subsequently vanished even quicker than it arrived.
Arnold Palmer never won another major on the PGA Tour, but he played for the next four decades. His draw never waned. Many said he brought golf into the modern era (with a little help from a friend, of course: the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus). And it’s hard to dispute that fact considering that when he won his last major, the 1964 Masters, Palmer was golf’s career money leader with a little more than $500,000. Today, tournament winners rarely take home less than $1 million for their four days’ work.
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In a phone interview from his home in California, at the Tradition Golf Club at La Quinta, near Palm Springs, Palmer fondly recalls the few weeks he reigned over Vail.
He bellows his deep, jolly sailor’s laugh while reminiscing about the drive from Leadville to Eagle County on Route 24. He and his pilot that day, Darrell Brown, stopped to snap a photo on a rock overlooking a sheer drop near Red Cliff. Like everyone else, they marveled at the high summits surrounding them.
When the conversation turns to the abrupt fate of the golf academy, however, Palmer speaks with a twinge of disappointment. “It didn’t last as long as I thought it should,” he says. “It was a little early. The people hadn’t really started filtering into Vail in droves as they have since then. If we had started it maybe a little later, it would still be there possibly.”
Perhaps. But it still left quite an impression. Hauserman says he doesn’t remember exactly who or when or where, but he knows there was representation on the PGA Tour among the boys who attended the academy. Palmer concurs. “A lot of people still remember and talk about the fact that they went to the Vail academy,” he says.
There is no way to quantify the effect that Palmer’s tie-in to Colorado’s high mountains had on the subsequent boom in golf interest and business in that same area. But the magnificent collection of courses that exists now is no accident.
There were a few High Country venues already in existence before Palmer’s golf academy brought America’s eyes to Vail, but what happened in the wake of his visit was akin to a gold rush.
Capitalizing on the buzz, Vail turned its nine holes into 18 the year after Palmer left. Today, there are nearly 40 courses in Colorado’s High Country, 11 in Eagle County alone. Palmer himself never forgot the beauty ” and potential ” he saw in 1968, and as Hauserman recalls, Palmer constantly yearned to design a course of his own. “Arnold kept saying, ‘Hey, Dick, get me a golf course up there!'” the 89-year-old Hauserman says. “But every time I’d hear about a course from the developer, they’d already picked an architect.”
What had been an afterthought in the minds of so many when Palmer first visited Vail ” golf … in a ski town? ” has since become so popular that even Palmer had to wait in line to get his chance. He finally found a situation that fit, and designed the Eagle Ranch course west of Vail, which opened in June 2001.
The list of golfers who, like Palmer, have designed high-altitude Colorado courses reads like a Hall of Fame conversation: Jack Nicklaus, Robert Trent Jones (Jr. and Sr.), Hale Irwin, Tom Fazio, Tom Weiskopf, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Tom Lehman.
Of course, none of this surprises he who helped America discover Rocky Mountain golf. “I don’t think there was any question about it. It was only a matter of time,” Palmer said when asked if he foresaw the growth in 1968. “The fact is, the area lends itself to pretty good golf.”
Nonetheless, getting Palmer to take some credit for the boom is more difficult than beating him on the course. The seven-time major winner, who still plays “a couple hundred” rounds per year, politely declined when I asked him to gauge the effect his academy had on Colorado mountain golf as a whole. “I think you’ll have to make that determination yourself,” he said.