So, I wanted to interview Arnold Palmer, AKA “The King;’ to talk about … personal health. That’s right. I wanted to consult Arnie, one of the greatest golfers to ever live and perhaps the sport’s greatest icon, about how golf course superintendents can live healthier lives.
I figured Palmer, who is a cancer survivor and whose father Deacon was a superintendent ( or “greenskeeper;’ as Arnie prefers to call him), could shed some light on the subject. I also figured our predominantly male audience – about 98 percent of superintendents are men – would revel in hearing from one of their heroes, who happens to face some of the same health issues they do.
Palmer liked the idea. I was invited to his office at the Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania’s scenic Laurel Highlands to interview him. It was at Latrobe, where Deacon was the superintendent and golf pro for many years, that Palmer learned the game of golf and the nuances of golf course maintenance. Palmer purchased Latrobe in 1971. His younger brother, Jerry, succeeded their father as the club’s superintendent and was promoted by Arnold to general manager in 1989.
Palmer has always felt close to the golf course maintenance profession, considering it’s literally in his blood. He has fond memories of working at Latrobe County Club as a kid.
“I learned how to drive a steel-wheeled tractor to cut fairways when I was 6 years old;’ Palmer says. “Those kind of things came natural to me.”
Palmer also feels a connection to those who have endured cancer. He has lent his name and financial support to several remedial organizations, including the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando and the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs, Calif.
Palmer turned 82 in September. When I visited him a few days before his birthday on a sun-splashed late-summer day, he looked healthy and happy.
“I feel fine,” he announced in a convincing tone.
Palmer had recently returned from the Mayo Clinic, where he goes every year for a checkup.
“I suggest everyone [receive an annual checkup];’ Palmer said. “It doesn’t have to be at the Mayo Clinic. It can be anywhere. I suggest that superintendents get a physical, a PSA [prostate-specific antigen] test and have all their vitals checked so they can get on with their lives. And, if something is wrong, they can do something about it.”
Palmer is especially adamant about men getting a PSA test. That’s because the test may have saved Palmer’s life. The PSA test measures protein produced by cells of the prostate gland in the blood and is sometimes referred to as a tumor marker.
Cancer is the No. 2 killer of men. Prostate cancer is the third most common cause of death from cancer in men of all ages and is the most common cause of death from cancer in men over age 75. Palmer was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997, when he was 67. But the cancer was caught early- Palmer had been taking the annual PSA test for several years – and he underwent surgery to remove his prostate.
“J had surgery on a Wednesday and Twas back home the following Friday,” Palmer says. “If you catch it early, you’re pretty lucky. I was very fortunate.”
The very aggressive cancer can be deadly if it’s not caught early. Doctors’ recommendations for PSAs vary. Some encourage the annual test for men over 50, and some advise men who are at a higher risk for prostate cancer to begin screening at 40 or 45.
Palmer was in his 30s when he began getting the test, which was new at the time. He advises superintendents not to wait until they’re 40 or 50. They should begin getting annual physicals, including PSAs, beginning at 30, he suggests.
“I never stopped getting the test after T started,” Palmer adds. “At one point during the testing, my PSA began to elevate. About 20 years ago, [it rose high enough] that I had to start having biopsies. I had them for three years with no sign of cancer. But one day, shortly after a biopsy, my doctor called me and aid, ‘Arnie, I’m sorry to tell you. But you have prostate cancer.'”
Palmer has gone to the same doctor for his annual checkup since he was 30. I remark to him that men, especially those in their 30s and early 40s, come up with every excuse possible to not go to the doctor.
I’m too busy.
I feel fine.
I don’t like doctors.
Palmer says: “l think it’s natural that so many men are afraid to go to the doctor. I was that way in my early years.”
Palmer, who won seven major tournaments (including four green jackets at the Masters) by the time he was 35, says he was not one to run to the doctor.
“But once I got started, l was consistent in going and just kept going,” he says. “Taking the time to go to the doctor was part of the problem.”
Palmer’s advice to superintendents is to get into the groove of going to the doctor. First, make the time to go; never say you’re too busy. Second, put aside any preconceived notions about going to the doctor. Third, pick a month every year – the month of your birthday makes sense – to go to the doctor.
Read more: Keeping their cool
“Consistency is the key;’ Palmer says. “Once you start going, then you will go automatically. And good doctors will make you aware that you need to see them [regularly].”
Our discussion turns to the importance of diet and exercise. The No. l killer of men is heart disease. According to the Mayo Clinic, men need to eat a diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and high-fiber foods, and stay away from big cheeseburgers and even bigger T-bone steaks.
You won’t catch Palmer at many buffet tables, unless it’s the salad buffet. “I eat a lot of salad and fruit,” he says. “I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I eat plenty of chicken and fish.”
Palmer mostly shuns fast food, although he confesses to indulging in the occasional hamburger. His lunch might consist simply of apple slices and cheese.
“I stay away from the heavy stuff,” he says.
To avoid heart disease, the Mayo Clinic also advises men to manage any chronic conditions, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure. In other words, take the medicine your doctor prescribes.
Palmer does, taking Metamucil every morning to manage his cholesterol and ingesting a blood pressure pill daily.
“Doctors’ orders,” he says.
Read more: Battling burnout
Abusive drinking and smoking can also cause heart disease. Palmer smoked when he was a regular on the PGA Tour.
“I smoked short of l5 years; a pack or two a day,” Palmer says. In 1964, when the Surgeon General released its report on smoking and health, Palmer decided to quit. It took him awhile to wean himself off cigarettes. “When l quit, it was very hard,” Palmer says.
The Mayo Clinic advises men to limit alcohol intake. Palmer says he drinks modestly, which may be a good thing. The Mayo Clinic and other health organizations say that moderate alcohol consumption (two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women) may provide some health benefits, including reducing heart disease.
Stress is another factor that causes heart disease. Everybody suffers from it, some more than others. Superintendents work in stressful environments, from those who oversee municipal courses to those who manage high-end clubs. They work long hours, face pressure from golfers for over-the-top conditioning expectations and spend a lot of time away from their families.
Palmer understands that pressure. He remembers the toll the job took on his father. During World War II, Deacon Palmer worked as the superintendent and pro at Latrobe – tending to the course in the morning and the pro shop in the afternoon – and then he worked the evening shift at a local steel mill.
“He did that every day for about three years” Palmer says. “I remember him coming home at night, and he couldn’t get up the stairs he was so tired. That was tough.”
Palmer has endured a type of stress that most of the population will never experience. How would you like to be staring at a pressure-packed putt with a tournament on the line? Oh yeah, and thousands of people are watching you.
Palmer fed off that stress, though, using it as a motivator. He says it made him a better player.
“The stress of making a shot was exciting and kept me going:’ Palmer adds.
No doubt Palmer realizes that the stress that comes with making a golf shot and the stress that comes with satisfying your golfers’ high expectations are as different as a driver and a wedge. But, in some cases, superintendents may be able to feed off the stress to do their jobs better, Palmer notes.
Another obvious health issue among superintendents and their crews, as well as golfers is skin cancer. It’s the most common type of cancer in the country. Up to 50 percent of Americans will develop skin cancer by the time they are 65. There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, the latter being deadly.
Palmer’s longtime friend and golf course design partner, the late Ed Seay, suffered from melanoma. Palmer believes that people in the golf course industry need to take skin cancer more seriously. Palmer has his ski11 checked twice annually for lesions that could be related to skin cancer.
“l have no reason in particular to think I’m vulnerable to skin cancer, except that anytime you’re in the sun as much as a superintendent or a golfer is, you should have yourself checked,” says Palmer, who recently endorsed the Sun SafeTee Program, a nonprofit sun protection and skin cancer awareness program designed for the golf community.
Palmer suggests visiting a dermatologist once a year for checkups. And while it’s simple advice, Palmer urges superintendents and their crew members to use sunscreen.
Superintendents and their crews are exposed to certain dangers on the job. They must operate equipment carefully and handle pesticides vigilantly. Palmer remembers the now-banned lead arsenate his dad put out to control turfgrass pests. At the time, nobody knew that long-term arsenic exposure could lead to several types of cancer.
“We never thought about it being dangerous,” Palmer says.
These days, Palmer is impressed how far the golf course maintenance industry has come in terms of developing safer operating equipment and less-toxic pesticides, which is good news for the health of superintendents, their crews and golfers.
“Products are getting better and better and better,” Palmer says. “[Industry companies] have done a great job. Products are Jess intrusive on the environment.”
As the interview concluded, it was obvious to me that Palmer welcomed the opportunity to share his experience with various health issues in order to help superintendents.
“Even though l played golf for a living, I really never left the superintendent field,” Palmer says.
Here’s to good health and happiness for The King and the many superintendents who are his fans.
This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of Superintendent.