It’s a day many of us knew would come but didn’t want to think about. Arnold Palmer passed away at the age of 87 on Sunday. Not only has the golf world lost a true icon, but anyone who recognized the name Palmer feels a true sense of loss. While most will identify him with the game, his work off the golf course — health care facilities, broadcasting, even developing his trademark beverage, allowed him to touch so many who had never picked up a club.
Words cannot begin to tell the story of the man raised in the hills of western Pennsylvania, son of a course superintendent in the small town of Latrobe. Handsome, rugged, confident, Arnold Palmer was cool before the word began to define those qualities. His bold style on the fairways coincided with the introduction of televised golf, bringing it to the forefront of sports entertainment. Television could not have partnered with a better figure than Arnold Palmer. Not only did he grow the game in America, he did so in Britain. His two major victories at the Open Championship encouraged America players to make the journey across the pond and play links golf.
I was fortunate to grow up in the Palmer era. He was the guy I pretended to be making the three footer on the putting green to win the US Open. He was the player who defied the odds, took a gamble and made it pay off more times than not. The charisma, the flair of his lashing swing, his connection with Arnie’s Army, everyone wanted to be like Arnold. He was a big reason why I made golf a major component of my life.
I first saw Palmer playing in the 1975 US Open at Medinah CC outside of Chicago. He would have been 45 at the time. Watching him tee it up you could see he still thought he could win even though he hadn’t claimed victory in two years. The galleries identified where he was as he made his way around the tree-lined course. They shared his intensity, his triumphs and mishaps, everyone who ever followed Arnie felt what he felt. He was one of us. He allowed us into his world like no other touring professional.
I saw him play his second to last Masters Tournament in 2003. On a rain-drenched Augusta National the King played with vigor although he often could not reach the par fours in regulation. Along the way he’d head towards the gallery ropes, going out of his way to give his regards to long time friends. Once again it was his way of giving back to a game that had given him so much. Those in attendance got a little bonus golf from the King since his second round had to be completed on Saturday morning due to the weather delays. You could never get too much of Arnold Palmer.
My generation is blessed to have been impacted by such a great man. While there have been other professionals who have achieved more on the course, there isn’t one who has approached Palmer’s impact on it or off of it. In typical fashion, Arnie placed the game on his broads shoulders in the 1960’s and carried it forward to a prosperous future. Every player since then who has made a dollar from playing golf owes $.90 of it to Arnold Palmer.
Even as he aged you knew just having Arnie on this earth made it a better place. He assured everyone things would be OK, he encouraged folks to do their best and most importantly he taught others how to conduct themselves appropriately, an art that has sadly eroded in this country. If he gave you a thumbs up gesture, it signified his approval and that all was right in the world.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of Mr. Palmer lies in the mountains of letters and correspondence he received over the years. He kept every one and remarkably, replied to those who sent them, signing each one personally. Palmer didn’t have to do that. He could have allowed his staff to send out form letters with a stamped signature. Heck, he didn’t need to reply at all. Yet that wasn’t the proper way of doing things. It wasn’t the “Palmer” way.
There are so many stories regarding Mr. Palmer. I’d like to convey a couple of them.
Back when I was the professional at Green Bay CC, we hosted a charity event that included some long drive professionals. One of them was a fellow named Scott DeCandia, a short, stocky pro who could send it a long way. He won the National Long Drive Championship in 1980 at Oak Hill CC. We got to talking while out on the course entertaining the day’s participants. Somehow Arnie’s name came up. He asked if I had ever met him. I had not. He then relayed his story about Mr. Palmer.
Apparently Palmer invited Scott to the Bay Hill Club in Orlando for a long drive exhibition. DeCandia had never met Palmer until he arrived. Once he was situated in his guest room at the lodge DeCandia was told Palmer would meet him for breakfast the next morning and go over plans for the day. The next morning at 6:00 am DeCandia heard a knock on his door and rolled out of bed. When he opened it, there stood Palmer ready to go. Scott quickly showered and dressed then followed Palmer down to the kitchen where The King cooked breakfast for the two of them. It was one of those behind-the-scenes instances where Palmer was just one of the guys. Scott admitted it was one of the best times of his life — he and Arnie chatting about golf over a fry pan of scrambled eggs in the Bay Hill kitchen. DeCandia said Palmer treated him like a friend he had known his whole life.
My second story about Mr. Palmer arose from a challenge my wife gave me a couple of years ago regarding a birthday present for my son Ryan, who is autistic. She wanted something unique and golf related for him. Ryan does not possess the motor skills to play but enjoys going out with us to the course serving as our caddie. I figured I’d get him a caddie bib.
I looked online for options but nothing caught my eye. Finally I thought to myself, “Which caddie bib would be appropriate?” It dawned on me one from Mr. Palmer’s tournament at Bay Hill would fit the bill. As I am inclined to do, I sent a letter to Mr. Palmer. A couple of weeks later a package arrived on my doorstep. I couldn’t remember ordering anything but when I picked up the package and saw the Bay Hill address I knew what it was. Inside was a caddie bib from the tournament along with a signed letter from Mr. Palmer. He wanted to wish Ryan a happy birthday and thanked my wife and I for being good parents. While I never met him personally, it was as if an old friend of our family took time out from his day to brighten ours. Each time we go out to play Ryan wears his bib from the Arnold Palmer Invitational. That was the magic of Arnold Palmer. No one has ever done it better.
Going forward it is a certainty we will never see another Arnold Palmer. We won’t have the thrill of watching him attack a golf course, hoist a trophy or sign scores of autographs, legibly. There will never be a professional golfer who cared so much about his fans. While most will say he gave more to the game than he took from it, Palmer seized the opportunity to mold it into what it has become today. He personified the professionalism, the appropriateness, the sportsmanship, the perseverance, the hope and true spirit of the game. He embraced everything it offered and continued to make it better.
Arnold Palmer was truly the king of his sport. An extraordinary gentleman doing things in so many ordinary ways. He was as comfortable in a board room as he was in a bar room. He treated people the way he wanted to be treated. Arnie realized it wasn’t hard to be nice. We should all follow his lead.
Life contains milestones that define our time on earth. Among my list are JFK’s assassination, the moon landing, the Challenger disaster, 9/11, and now the passing of Arnold Palmer. With each instance I remember where I was and how I felt. In each case I felt a tremendous sense of loss. I feel that way today and probably will for weeks to come.
Thank you Mr. Palmer for your life, your passion and your guiding hand. It is now up to us to carry the “Palmer Spirit” forward and ensure that it thrives for future generations.