About an hour into my viewing of the Arnold Palmer tributes on the Golf Channel, I began to wonder if an around-the-clock channel devoted to competitive golf would even exist if it weren’t for Arnold Palmer.
His influence has been that significant and long-lasting.
And if I admit to tearing up a bit with memories of Palmer, I’ll bet I’m not the only one among an army to do so, even if I only chatted with him half an hour or so a few times at events late in his career.
There was no one like him before and none since, the rare transcendent athlete who compelled us to watch, as much for his daring failures as his dramatic successes.
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He took the game out of the hands of the brilliant-but-charmless Ben Hogan and creaky president Eisenhower and somehow managed to make it seem cool. He was “The King,” and his legion of followers “Arnie’s Army.”
And after his fiery competitiveness lost its relevance, his charisma remained as powerful as ever, and he helped change countless lives with his philanthropy.
The tributes have been moving, and all deserved after his Sunday passing at age 87. Strange that almost no one feels the need to recap his golfing accomplishments – dwarfed, as they are, by the stories of his humanity and charity.
Golfer Phil Mickelson, on a Golf Channel interview Monday morning, revealed how Palmer didn’t just show up at the range and putting green and prepare to compete, he would spend time showing his appreciation with tournament volunteers who held the gallery ropes, marshaled the course, or cleaned up the locker room.
He recalled how Palmer told him to never walk past anyone, always look them in the eye, acknowledge them, give them something of yourself. They deserved that.
That’s the Palmer I saw in the late 1990s, nothing but total humility and heartfelt appreciation for the fans.
As he warmed up at the Inglewood Country Club driving range for a Skins Game in 1997, he chatted with everybody, and stopped to sign anything that was put in front of him.
He took time to share handshakes and hugs, and patiently listen to everyone who thanked him for all that he had done for the game.
The easy banter was natural for Palmer, who had so much charm he apparently couldn’t turn it off. Fans, media, men, women, children — everybody came away feeling they’d not just had an encounter with a legend, but with a warm and genuine person.
From a few media folks near him that morning, he spotted a young female TV reporter and asked her if she wanted to hit a range ball. After she took his club and skulled one, she asked Palmer what he thought of her form. “Looks pretty good to me, but if you take off that big jacket, I could tell you better,” he said, still flirty at age 67.
During his match, he humbly declared that his game wasn’t up to speed, but he was still getting 250 yards off the tee with his driver, and stopping several times every hole to visit with someone from his past.
Asked about his unrelenting charm with the fans, Palmer said: “Oh, I fake it pretty good.” He dismissed his charm charmingly, with a charming wink.
A woman from Olympia he visited with that day told me he’s always been like that, and she had seen him at events since he won the Carling Open at Fircrest in 1960. “He knows you the minute you walk up and he takes time with you,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever ignored anybody; he’s every inch a gentleman.”
Working in sports media over the years weans all the gee-whiz out of celebrity encounters for you. But this was Arnold Palmer. I still remembered him in the small-screen, black-and-white world of the 1960s. I remember holding my breath as I watched him doing graceful and magical things in this game he called “goff.”
So, it was a fun day to walk inside the ropes with him, but I felt nostalgic for the kind of shots when he used to slash at the ball and then try to direct it out of trouble with contorting body English and that telekinetic stare. Those days were long gone.
He made some great shots in this Skins game, but on 18, when he could have earned a pricey “skin,” he let a putt of almost 20 feet slide by the hole.
At the presentation of checks and charity funds after play had finished, Palmer made some nice comments about the event and all who had taken part, and then eased back out of the spotlight.
I don’t know why, but I followed him as he walked away, maybe to see if he needed help putting his bag into his car. Maybe I might be able to catch him for a quick after-the-round comment.
Here’s what he did: He retrieved the putter from his bag and walked off, by himself, to the 18th green. I watched from the fringe as he dropped the ball at roughly the spot it had been when the money was on the line.
He lined it up carefully, and made a smooth stroke. The ball, finally remembering that it had been struck by the man known as “The King,” curved slightly and slowed just in time to dive into the cup.
In that moment, I caught a rare glimpse into golf history, and certainly into the heart that made this man great.
After having won 92 tournaments, seven majors, and changed the future of an entire game, he still had that pilot-light of competitiveness flickering inside.
Notebook one hand and pen in the other, I clapped softly – an army of one. He looked at me, grinned, and pointed his finger in my direction.
Long live The King, I thought at that moment.
Thankfully, he did.