September 25, 2016 was a lazy Sunday at our house, occupied with a variety of chores that were overcome by watching the final round of the Tour Championship and its four-hole playoff, won by Rory McIlroy. Afterwards, I went to do a little work in my office when a news alert popped up on my computer: Arnold Palmer was dead, at 87 years old.
How often does this happen: Someone reaches an advanced age or a public posture of frailty or declining health. They range from an acquaintance to a family member to someone we’re very close to, or maybe they’re a celebrity or public figure. Whoever it is, we know their time is short; we’re pretty sure the end isn’t far away. We practically expect to hear bad news about this person in a relatively short a time, but much too soon. Still, when the news comes, we’re floored. We practically feel shocked. We can’t believe it.
Such was the case for me this day – and for millions of others – with the news about Mr. Arnold Palmer. Like scores of others, Arnie was a lifelong hero of mine. We reacted the way we did because Mr. Palmer had always been in our lives, and because the world had been a better place with him in it.
An ongoing stream of tributes, testimonies, and official statements heralding the man’s passing crawled across the bottom of television screens on more than one channel. The Golf Channel – founded by Mr. Palmer – began days of continuing coverage that properly focused far beyond golf to the many areas into which his contributions transcended the game he loved. Features highlighted many friends, from contemporaries in the game, to those with connections to the children’s hospitals he founded, to partners in his myriad of business interests.
A common theme through the expressions on Palmer is that word “friend”. He was a friend to other legends, a friend to his neighbors, a friend to golfers everywhere, and certainly a friend to golf. But maybe most telling of all is that he made us all feel like we were his friend, and like he was ours.
There were also pieces that spoke to Arnie’s relationship to the Everyman in all of us, and how he always possessed the ability, uncanny for most any celebrity, to make each and every person he met feel like they were the center of the universe at that moment. From his earliest interactions coming from his hard-working upbringing to his last days in a Pittsburgh hospital, he went out of his way to display kindness, humility, and personal care for anyone he met. There are so many stories about fans’ experiences meeting him that Golf Channel had put together shows titled “Arnie and Me”, which they ran portions of again now.
I always had a level of envy for people who had these kinds of encounters with him, and watching descriptions of them now simply enhanced my sorrow. I suppose take solace in my claim that I got to see him at his craft on the golf course, at least once in person. I remember it vividly.
The first time I saw Arnold Palmer was at the Colonial National Invitation PGA tournament in Fort Worth. It was my first time at Colonial since he’d lost the U.S. Open in spectacular fashion to Billy Casper at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, so it was at least the spring of 1967, maybe later. I recall still being childishly mad at Casper for having taken another Open away from my golfing idol, ignoring that it had been Palmer who blew a seemingly insurmountable lead with but a few holes remaining.
I have clear memories of running in the gate and grabbing a pairings sheet with the intention of finding Arnie as quickly as I could in order to follow him several holes. From the gate that plunks you onto the course near number one and the front side, I headed past the sixth green and up the seventh fairway. I still remember my first time approaching the throng that was “Arnie’s Army” moving in unison as the group headed toward the green. Beginning halfway up the fairway and then winding around the back of the putting surface, the crowd was too many deep for an 11-year old to be able to see much. But I squeezed myself in far enough to get my eyes on that signature knock-kneed stance of my hero. Whether he actually did or not, nearly fifty years later now I’ll swear his wristy stroke drained a long birdie putt before the swarm buzzed toward the par-3 eighth. I knew better than to stick myself into that tight corner of the course and moved ahead of the group to await their tee shots to come on the ninth hole.
I was proud of my foresight until the Army came to swallow me once again. If I then decided to fight the masses and continue to follow him on to 10, 11, and beyond, I don’t remember it. I probably peeled off and found smaller galleries following other golfers from which to watch the action. Arnie had won Colonial before my time in 1962, and he may well have played the tournament in years after the later-’60’s time I saw him there. If he did, I’m sure I would have sought him out once again; I simply don’t remember it.
I guess the point is, Arnie was so popular that this particular young fan got little chance to see him that first time in person. There weren’t grandstands to climb on, video screens to substitute for that direct eyesight viewing, and I sure didn’t have one of those mirror-box things you’d occasionally see sticking up out of a crowd. But what little I saw of him that day cemented the adoration I had developed over the preceding years.
Like what year I first saw him in person, I can’t identify now the specific years before that when other golf events forced me to become his fan. I remember watching him win the Masters, but which time? The British Open, we’d just heard about that after the fact. The Casper-won Open at Olympic, I saw that on TV. How many “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf”? How many Big Three golf shows?
But it was so much more than golf that made us put Arnie on a pedestal, and that was a generation before he began building hospitals centered on care for women and babies among his other philanthropic ventures.
Arnie was all over television, but not so much playing in tournaments. Golf was not always televised, and when a tournament was on, you might only see the last few holes on Sunday. Palmer still appeared on our TV often. He was the first real sports-related endorser for television advertising, and seemed to be hawking everything, long before he would later run through airports with O.J. Simpson for Hertz. Beyond that, he seemed to always be in magazine and newspaper ads. He was everywhere, and he was sharp, and he epitomized cool. I was just a punk kid, but if Arnie was pushing it, I thought it must be the best product around.
There were so many things for a kid of the time to like about Arnold Palmer. What perhaps clinched it for me was I’d grown up in “an aviation family”, and Palmer was a real-life pilot. Becoming the top earning golfer of the day, he owned his own planes, and flew himself to tournaments. But maybe it was why he did it, which I recall impressing my parents so much: He flew so that he could be at home with his family more often. Arnie went through a variety of aircraft, but I remember being fascinated with the Cessna Citation, the private jet that had become Palmer’s favorite. I remember pouring through aviation magazines, trying to learn more about the Citation, but probably stopping to gawk more often at the Cessna advertisements touting it.
So, yes, Arnie was in the public eye of the world. As a golfer, he was the down-to-earth blue collar guy who grew into a charismatic swashbuckler, with a follow-through to his swing that resembled such a sword-fighter. His was a type of play that got him into more than his share of trouble, and even that was part of his aura because he so relished using the talent he had for getting out of it. For a few years, he seemed to win everything. When he didn’t win, it seemed because his style of play brought implosions as well.
But it may have been all of these exposures combined that made so many of us want to take up the game of golf. Among the many legacies he leaves behind, his growth of the game is as impressive as any. He showed us that you could really have fun playing it, and that it was a fun thing to do with friends and buddies. We believed it was truly for everybody, not just for the country club set. When every adult had nothing but good things to say about him because of how genuinely nice, kind, and respectful he seemed to be toward everyone, the package that was Arnold Palmer was just something we wanted to emulate. The admiration for him that began as a youngster in the ‘60’s remained through our lives until today.
I can say without a doubt that Arnold Palmer is why I got interested in golf. Since his passing, I’ve heard a former President of the United States say of Palmer, “As a child, he made me think it was OK for me to want to be a golfer”. That hit the nail on the head for me.
Fortunately for me, I had a golfing uncle who stoked the feelings Palmer inspired and helped make golf a passion much deeper and stronger than any talent I might ever have for it. That same uncle possessed many of the same personal qualities I saw in Mr. Palmer. Like Arnold, he was a kind and gentle man that you believed could kick your ass if you asked for it. I count my Uncle Leo as an Arnie surrogate in developing my love of their game.
I read Palmer’s book “Go for Broke” when I was on my high school golf team, and I read his book “A Golfer’s Life” as an adult. In both cases I did so with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. For many of us, Arnold Palmer is why we’d send that money every year to the United States Golf Association, “For The Good of the Game”, even when that same USGA would do goofy things that made us scratch our heads.
As a salesman, he represented seemingly everything a consumer might need. As a businessman, everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. His smooth, contemporary attire and his charming smile made women want him and men want to be like him. Like my uncle, he was – and you could say this back then – “a man’s man”. But none of these are the main reason he is and will always be the legend that makes him “The King”. And Legends really never die; they live on in our memories.
I started letters to Mr. Palmer more than once. In recent years particularly, when my own mortality was coming into focus, I have often been touched by the fact that we don’t typically say “Thank You” enough to those who have had an impact on our lives. Arnie was the top of my list in that regard. He and I had never, and would never meet. Like he was for countless others, for me he was always a tremendous role model. Even if I never proved it well enough with my own actions, the worst that could be said about anyone idolizing him was that we were kinder people for having done so. The fact that I appreciated how his being a good man had so positively impacted so many was something I felt I should share with him. And I never did.
I’ve heard so many tales through the years about the hundreds of people who every day for years would send him a note, more often than not asking for an autographed picture or something, and how he made a point of always accommodating them. Just the thought of getting something like that from him gave me chills, from my earliest childhood memories until now. But that was so far from the point of why I wanted to contact him. I just wanted to let him know, that of the millions of people around the world over the many years of his life on whom he made an impact, that I was one of them.
I wanted to tell him my honest feeling that I feel very blessed to have lived in a time when he walked the earth. And that’s true. I wanted to thank him just for being who and what he has always been in my eye: Authentic. Genuine. The definition of “a good person”. Sure, he’d heard that from so many, many others, maybe a million. What harm would it have been for me to be number one-million-and-one?
Like the loved ones we regret after their passing that we didn’t tell them we loved them. That’s the regret I have now upon Mr. Palmer’s passing. Simply that I didn’t tell him. I didn’t thank him. Doing so may well have meant very little to him, but it would have meant a lot to me. Maybe that proves I’m selfish; if that’s the case, then so be it.
I loved Arnold Palmer for more than what he meant to the game, even though that was a lot, indeed. In how many of us did he fuel our fire within to immerse ourselves and enjoy throughout our lives the ancient game he loved, a fever he got from his father before him? Maybe even more so, everyone who loved him did for what he was to millions of people beyond golf. For what he was and always has been to me. For being our friend, even if we never met. It’s yet another reminder to acknowledge the contributions to our lives that others make, to share that fact with those we appreciate, while we still can.
Thank people for being a positive part of your life. For one or the other of you, tomorrow may be too late.