Haydenville’s Bob Toski received 90th birthday message from Arnold Palmer before he died

  • File- This April 5, 2007, file photo shows former Masters champion Arnold Palmer acknowledging the crowd after hitting the ceremonial first tee shot prior to the first round of the 2007 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga. Palmer, who made golf popular for the masses with his hard-charging style, incomparable charisma and a personal touch that made him known throughout the golf world as "The King," died Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Pittsburgh. He was 87. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File) David J. Phillip

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Arnold Palmer appeared nervous approaching the first tee of the 1954 Azalea Open.

He breathed heavily and grabbed his belt at his hips.

It was his first PGA tournament after receiving an invitation from winning the United States Amateur Championship earlier that season.

He was paired with Ted Culver and Haydenville’s Bob Toski, who led the PGA’s money list that season, at Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Culver, who was Toski’s mentor on the tour, said, “He looks nervous. You better loosen the kid up.”

“I told him a risque story as only golf pros can do. I guess I loosened him up pretty good, he shot 65,” Toski said. “Ted said, ‘you better tighten that SOB up tomorrow.’”

Toski won the tournament, one of his four victories that year, while Palmer finished third.

“Arnold never forgot that first day he met Ted and me. He said, ‘You were so gracious and you made me relaxed. You didn’t act like you were doing me a favor to play with us,” Toski said. “We told him we’re a couple Polish boys that liked to have fun. We became pretty good friends.”

Palmer went on to win 62 PGA Tour events and seven major championships. He died Sept. 25 in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

A week before that, at the Marriott in Boca Raton, Florida, Toski celebrated his 90th birthday with 140 friends and family.

Charlie Hamilton read a congratulatory birthday message from Palmer.

“He said some kind words about the fact of how much I’d done for golf and done so much for golf professionals as a teacher and what a wonderful player I was for my size and wished me a happy birthday,” Toski said.

Toski played six years on the PGA Tour before leaving to spend time with his family and work as a club professional. He was one of the smallest players on tour at 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds.

Hamilton first met Toski and Palmer while working for the U.S. Golf Association as a consulting managing editor for programs.

“Bob and I go back into the 80s when Arnold and Bob and I played in a pro-am together in either 1980 or 1981 at PGA National where they have the Honda tournament in February,” Hamilton said.

He was aware of Toski’s 90th birthday and began working with Palmer’s staff to secure the birthday message. A secretary received the message from Palmer and dictated it to Hamilton, who read it at Toski’s celebration and gave him one of Palmer’s trademark umbrella lapel pins.

“Arnold was always big on sending greetings. I have one on my wall for my 50th birthday,” Hamilton said. “It took about a week. I wanted to make sure that Bob got recognized by Arnold. Little did we know that he was going to pass.”

Toski responded to Palmer’s message with a letter of his own.

He handwrote it on Sept. 21, a Wednesday, and his granddaughter was going to type it.

It opened with words of respect and admiration while remembering their first and only professional round together.

“Since I first met you at the Azalea Open and watched you perform your magic I knew you were going to be a great player. You and Bobby Jones captured the hearts of the American people because of the way you played,” Toski wrote. “You words by Charlie Hamilton were heartfelt at my surprise birthday party, and everyone was surprised and happy you did that. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I called to talk about your health and life in general.”

Palmer died before he received the letter.

“The letter’s been sent to him, but he’ll never see it,” Toski said.

They last met two years ago at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando, Florida.

“I called him, and I saw him on the golf course. He was in a cart,” Toski said. “He told me to meet him at a certain hole, and I was there and we talked. He was with his wife, he never got out of the cart.”

Toski remembered Palmer as an aggressive player, his style contrasting starkly with the “southern gentleman” Jones.

Palmer played on the PGA Tour from 1954 until he retired in 2006.

Toski became a coach and teacher of the game.

He taught World Golf Hall of Fame inductees Tom Kite and Judy Rankin in addition to writing seven books about golf. Toski coached Birdie Kim to the 2006 U.S. Women’s Open title.

“Probably the best all-around pro golfer that ever became a teacher,” Hamilton said of Toski.

Because of his acclaim as a teacher of golf, there’s one part of the world that revered Toski over Palmer.

“I was more popular in Japan than Arnold was,” Toski said. “Sensei (teacher) to the Japanese is more important. I was like a Buddha over there.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.