Community Sports

Folksy legend in the flesh: Palmer wowed Semiahmoo crowd in 1987

Arnold Palmer tries to coax a putt into the hole on the third green at Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club during a 18-hole exhibition match to dedicate the course on June 22, 1987.
Arnold Palmer tries to coax a putt into the hole on the third green at Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club during a 18-hole exhibition match to dedicate the course on June 22, 1987. The Bellingham Herald

Brian Southwick remembers the round of golf on a Monday nearly 30 years ago.

He now sells real estate in Whatcom County for Windermere, but in 1987 Southwick was a golf pro at Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club in Blaine. The front nine holes had opened the year before, but Resort Semiahmoo waited until the back nine was playable before dedicating the course with its ace attraction – Arnold Palmer.

Semiahmoo is one of more than 300 new or remodeled golf courses designed by Palmer’s company. Palmer, who died Sunday at a Pittsburgh hospital at age 87, was a world-famous golfer, course developer and businessman with sports and corporate interests around the globe. Yet it was his easygoing personality, along with his go-for-broke approach to the game, that created Arnie’s Army of loyal fans, including those who watched him that Monday in Blaine.

His relations with the crowd (are) second to none. Arnie’s Army is everywhere.

Brian Southwick, former pro, Semiahmoo Golf & Country Club

On June 22, 1987, Palmer played a low-key round of 18 holes at Semiahmoo with club pro Mark Johnson. The event raised money for charity and capped a weekend of activities to dedicate the resort and the award-winning course.

“No one had a bad day,” recalled Southwick, who walked the course that day with several hundred other people who came to see Palmer up close. “It was such a positive experience. His relations with the crowd (are) second to none.”

Palmer shot a 1-under-par 71, with Johnson eight shots back. The outcome, however, took a distant back seat to people’s chance to see and talk with Palmer, get his autograph and have a picture taken with him by the triple-wide modular building that served as the temporary clubhouse.

“He was very approachable,” said Johnson, now general manager of Martis Camp, a residential golf community near Lake Tahoe, Calif. “He was the consummate gentleman.”

A Bellingham Herald story the next day described the rapt audience of golf fans who bantered and joked with the golf legend popularly called “the King.”

“They followed Palmer around the course like a pack of lovesick hound dogs,” the story said, “pumped him for tips on everything from club selection to golfing etiquette.”

Johnson played against Palmer that day head-to-head, but he knew Palmer was head and shoulders above.

“He was the highlight of the day,” Johnson said. “It was fun to watch him work his craft.”

JoAnn Roe, a Bellingham author and freelance writer, was at Semiahmoo that day. For her, too, Palmer’s demeanor stood out.

“He was like meeting a fellow Rotarian or a businessman,” she said. “He didn’t act like the important person that he was.”

Southwick said Palmer a few years later paid a return visit to Semiahmoo – one that was much more private. Palmer had a corporate contract to appear at tournaments. When Palmer couldn’t attend a tournament in the Northwest, he agreed to a golf visit with sponsors elsewhere in the region.

“He could have played anywhere in the Northwest, but he decided to come back to Semiahmoo,” Southwick said. “He loved it here.”