Commentary: Golf Channel tries too hard to sell Arnie
The opening words of “Arnie,” a three-part testimonial to Arnold Palmer on Golf Channel, sets the direction of this extravaganza.
“How do you tell the story of a life — that’s larger than life?” said Tom Selleck, the narrator, who adds: “Someday, years, even decades” — or centuries from now — “they’ll hear the name Arnold Palmer, and they’ll want to know everything. Where he came from. What he aspired to. How he built a legacy truly unlike any other.”
“Arnie” is Golf Channel’s attempt at delivering everything, and it arrives with the archival film, video, photographs, letters and talking heads that are the trappings of documentaries.
But this a tribute, not a documentary, if you think of documentaries as works that reveal, surprise or investigate. This is a television event, as Golf Channel describes it, one in which more than 100 admirers talk about the King. “Arnie” describes no conflicts or personal maelstroms. It is an upbeat yarn and leaves us with an ode that would fit nicely on Palmer’s website.
Golf Channel is the natural and the wrong place to televise “Arnie.” Golf Channel seems an appropriate home for the story of Palmer, whose wealth, renown and image sprang from golf. No golfer has ever been more important even if he is, objectively, not the greatest one. When television sports was coming of age, he parlayed his emotional, colorful, blue-collar golfing style into a global image of manliness, neighbor-next-door amiability and sustained success. You sense that his appeal, at 84, is undiminished. But Palmer is also a co-founder and original investor in Golf Channel. He has been enriched by it. And he is an adviser to the network.
A more nuanced, possibly more balanced documentary than the mega-”Arnie” would probably not be shown on Golf Channel.
As the natural and wrong place for “Arnie,” the best way to watch it (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at 10 p.m.) is to recognize how subjective it is. You’ll probably enjoy it.
The three-hour length makes “Arnie” an engaging, nostalgic load, mostly because of old Palmer family film, television footage and his commercials.
As “Arnie” tracks the myriad parts of Palmer’s life and career — his roots in Latrobe; his college years and early playing career; his marriage to Winnie Walzer; his relationship with his fans; his record in the majors; his failures; and his legacy as a sports marketer — one senses the magnificent scope of his story and the difficulty faced in taming “Arnie.” He seems to have lived several lifetimes; he maintains a shed in Latrobe, where he keeps old shoes, clubs, scorecards and every fan letter he has ever received. He is his own propman.
How do you handle the fullness of Palmer? The producer, Israel DeHerrera, embraced it all, choosing to paint Palmer as broadly as possible, packing the series so full that it bursts with too many storylines: the golfer, the pilot, the humanitarian, the fan favorite, the pal, the course architect, the husband, the father, the commercial star, the corporate magnate and the overall wonderful guy. “Arnie” wants it all.
And by trying to be definitive, “Arnie” uses too many voices. Among them are 33 current and former golfers, 14 working journalists, six biographers and seven relatives. The three-hour mandate seems to have prompted a casting call that could produce every living person who wanted to talk about Palmer, even if some — like Kurt Russell, Donald Trump and Joe Torre — need not have been invited.
Had Golf Channel limited its ambitions to a standard 60-or 90-minute documentary length, “Arnie” might have been a more focused work that wasn’t so overtly hagiographic.
ESPN took an efficient approach in its “30 for 30” short in 2012 about the creation and success of the Arnold Palmer iced tea-and-lemonade drink. In about nine minutes, it told the story briskly and irreverently (and better than “Arnie” does). “Arnie” could have used less reverence and even more of Palmer himself; he is still a fine storyteller.
I would have liked to have heard about the way he became such an aggressive golfer — we know from “Arnie” that he listened to what his father, Deacon, told him, and there is a clip of the elder Palmer instructing his son about his grip — as well as more insight into how it felt to upend the golf world, and if he struggled emotionally when Nicklaus usurped his position.
Yet, Arnie’s Army will probably inhale every minute as if it were sanctified air from Bay Hill. Here he wins the 1960 U.S. Open; there he is flying his jet. He battles Nicklaus on the course, but Jack chokes up at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony for Arnie. Palmer meets the Hollywood swimming beauty Esther Williams in the 1940s and the swimsuit model Kate Upton in the 21st century. Palmer tells fellow golfers to sign their autographs legibly and pays the postage for fans who send autograph requests but forget to add a stamp to their return envelopes.
Palmer’s story is a memorable one, but “Arnie” tries too hard to tell it.