Winchester remembers when ‘The King’ came to town

Published 8:51 am Monday, October 3, 2016

Golfing legend Arnold Palmer died last week, leaving behind a legacy as one of the sport’s best. He was also an iconic figure beyond the golf course.
Earlier this month marked the 50th anniversary of Palmer’s visit to Clark County, when ‘The King’ played a round at the Winchester Country Club. The memory hasn’t faded.
“I was in college and working at Idle Hour Country Club,” Winchester Country Club’s Head Golf Pro Bob Baldwin said. “I had a chance to go, but I decided to stay at work and let some of the other guys head to Winchester.”
While Baldwin labored on Labor Day weekend 1966 — Sunday, Sept. 4 to be exact — 1,000 to 1,500 took their chance to see Palmer in action.
“A lot of people from around central Kentucky came to see him,” Baldwin said. “He was the most visible and vibrant touring professional of the time.”
Palmer was a week away from his 37th birthday and had just finished one of the best stretches in sports a couple years prior, winning seven major titles and 43 total events between 1958 and 1964.
He was joined in the exhibition round by a trio of locals — Buddy Mahan, Jim Osborne, of Lexington, and Gene Hilen, of Mount Sterling.
John Stotts, of Winchester, and his teammates on the high school golf team served as caddies.
“We did it by who was the No. 1 player, and that year Steve Smith was the No. 1 player so he got Arnold,” Stotts said. “I caddied for Gene Hilen, who was a pro in Mount Sterling. Allen Baber caddied for Jim Osborne, a pro from Spring Valley Country Club. The amateur champion was Buddy Mahan, and Steve Perish caddied for him.”
Even as Palmer signed autographs and joked with the crowd, he shot a 63 to lead the group. But Osborne finished with a very respectable 67. Hilen had a 75 and Mahan a 79.
Mahan wasn’t happy with his effort, but he still enjoyed the experience, telling the Sun in 1966, “I really wanted to play a presentable game, but being out there with a fellow like Palmer gave me a thrill. I found myself having a real good time.”
Osborne’s efforts earned the respect of Palmer, who suggested the Lexington native try his hand a the PGA tour, Stotts said.
Stotts said Hilen was a little shaky.
“The guy I caddied for was the nicest guy in the world,” he said. “He was known as one of the best teaching pros around. Really good teaching but not a great playing pro — he was OK. So, he was a nervous wreck, as you can imagine.
“But he was a nice guy and so funny. We got out on the course and he’d look at me and say, ‘What do you think?’ And I’d say, ‘Let’s keep you in play and keep making par.’ He shot a 75, which was good for him.”
Palmer’s 63 tied a record for the then-9-hole course, which expanded to an 18-hole course in 1968. But he was on a record-setting pace near the finish.
“We’re coming down the last hole, which is No. 16 now but was No. 9, and I want to say he was around 10 under,” Stotts said. “He came down the fairway and asked some people who held the course record. ‘Is it somebody local?’ And they said, ‘Yes, it is.’ So he three-putted the last hole to just tie the record and not break it.
“He found out it was a local record, and he didn’t want to break it. If it had been another pro, he probably would have broken it. There was no reason for him to three-putt that hole. You could tell it was on purpose if you knew what was going on. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
And his easy charm entertained the assembled throng, as Sun reporter Bob Poer wrote 50 years ago, “Arnie came to please [. . .] and no one among the chanting army could say they failed to get their money’s worth during the course of the unforgettable day.”
“You realized when you were around him in that circumstance, just how charismatic he is,” Stotts said. “He was just a super nice guy, and you could see why everyone loved him.”
The story of Palmer’s visit hasn’t been easily forgotten.
“It’s been something through the years that has been a part of the history and tradition of the country club,” Baldwin said.
Reach Casey at casey.castle@winchestersun.com.