I can’t let the passing of Arnold Palmer go by without a few words.
I, like most golfers my age, have been an ad hoc member of Arnie’s Army since the 1960s.
My first sighting of Palmer was in the early ’70s at the Kemper Open at Quail Hollow Country Club in Charlotte. Even that brief appearance showed why he has remained one of the world’s favorite and most charismatic golfers.
Early in the round, standing near the tee box as an ordinary fan, I watched Palmer drag on a cigarette, then caught his eye for a second. Suddenly, a little wink and a smile and I came to realize over the years that a wink and a smile was the way Arnold Palmer acknowledged thousands of fans.
The fact is, no one interacted with galleries the way Palmer did. More than anyone else, he treated golf as a game, not as a life-or-death mission.
I’m a longtime fan of Tiger Woods, but Tiger’s laserlike focus on his game while negating all around him has unfortunately set the standard for the hundreds who have come after him. Today’s game could truly use an Arnold Palmer.
In that same round at Quail Hollow, I watched Palmer stand over an 8-foot putt, power it by the hole and miss it coming back. A devastating, embarrassing three-putt for Arnold, but an affirmation that golf can be as cruel to the best of us as it is to the rest of us.
I’ve tried to keep it in mind during my own three-putt greens.
The last time I saw Palmer was at the 2004 Masters. He won that tournament four times and elevated it to one of the world’s greatest sporting events – the Masters is one of the most cherished tickets in sports. Now, at age 74, he was making his 50th and final trek across Augusta National’s hilly terrain.
I and a friend joined his Army and followed him through his last several holes, even watching his final putt for an 84.
Afterward he said his goodbyes:
“I’m through. I’ve had it. I’m done, cooked, washed up, finished, whatever you want to say.” Then he laughed and said simply, “It’s time.”
Palmer’s impact on the game cannot be overstated. He never won as often as Woods or Jack Nicklaus, but he’s fifth on the all-time list of winners.
He also became the first golfer to win $1 million in career prize money – leading the way to ever bigger payoffs for today’s golfers.
His last win was in 1973 and it wasn’t long before he helped get the struggling Senior Tour, now Champions Tour, off the ground; later, he would be the driving force behind The Golf Channel, which has found a home with golf fans everywhere.
Palmer was often called the King of Golf and I learned just this week that he hated the nickname.
“There is no king of golf,” he once said. “Never has been, never will be.
“Golf is the most democratic game on Earth. It punishes and exalts us all with splendid equal opportunity.”
No one said it better.
Contact Bob Bestler at email@example.com.