I received an e-mail the other day from somebody asking how I could possibly still be covering sports with the number of “bad characters” involved in the games these days. I thought about it for a while, and started to catalogue what I’d been covering for the past several months. Shootings, stabbings, court proceedings, lies, tirades and general mayhem have been everyday occurrences in the sports world. That’s no fun, and I was beginning to agree with my e-mail correspondent. That’s when Arnold Palmer happened.
I probably can’t overstate the effect Arnold Palmer has had on his sport, and the people who cover him. He’s one of the most scrutinized athletes of the century, yet he’s unfailingly polite, strong in his convictions, and successful by any measure .
Invited to a “grounds inspection” by Palmer Course Design at the new Golf Club at Northampton in Yulee, Florida, I headed there one morning, through the stoplight (yes, the one) in Yulee turned right at the next dirt road, and headed back into the woods. A couple of dusty miles later I came to a clearing, where about 15 people were standing in a circle, chatting, and the one in the middle was unmistakably Arnold Palmer. In a pink golf shirt, khakis and boat shoes, Palmer had just returned from looking over the shaping and routing of the golf course. He was early, as is his custom, and was ready to go. The Citation X was at the Fernandina Airport and he (what else!) had a tee time. While everybody else was scurrying about, as is the case with all real leaders, Palmer was the most comfortable person there. The organizers were worried Arnold might leave before the official time of the event. The guests and the media hadn’t arrived yet. I was a few minutes early (very rare) and had a chance to stand and chat with Arnold for about 5 minutes or so before conducting an interview. At the opening of Mill Cove a few years ago, Arnold invited my father to sit with him at lunch, and when I reminded him of that, and sent my Dad’s regards, Palmer graciously said he remembered that day, and asked me to remember him to my father! We talked about our mutual love of flying, and he quizzed me about what I was going to say in my upcoming speech at the Rampagers’ Change of Command. I chuckled to myself after a couple of minutes. Hey! You’re standing here chatting with Arnold Palmer like there’s no one else in the world! He’s just that comfortable. While reminding his long time partner Ed Seay about the tee time at Bay Hill, Palmer attended to all of his duties of the day, spoke to everyone as if he’d known them for years, told Ed to invite me to play golf at Bay Hill with him soon, and quietly, left. Not a minute too early, not a minute too late.
How is it that one of the most famous athletes of the century has the time for everybody, but never seemed bothered or rushed? What can the modern day player possibly say to excuse his boorish behavior after watching Arnold Palmer conduct himself with the grace of an international diplomat? The answer is nothing. I always find it funny to watch other players from golf and other sports, straighten their posture, change their vocabulary and check their attitudes at the door when Arnold enters a room. It can’t be brushed off with an “old school” reference. It can’t be called “classic.” It’s just what’s right in any situation.
I’ve been fortunate to have lots of professional encounters with Arnold Palmer. All are memorable, and two are good examples of the example he sets.
As a young reporter in Jacksonville, I asked the Tournament Director of the TPC, John Tucker if he thought Arnold Palmer might come on our air live for the six o’clock news. Neither Palmer nor Jack Nicklaus nor Gary Player had ever appeared live on the news in town, I explained. Tucker pointed to Arnold on the practice tee at the Stadium Course and said, “Go down there and tell Arnold I told you he would go live with you tonight at six o’clock.” After a bit of prodding, I ventured to the tee where Palmer was hitting irons, his caddie, assistant, pilot and others in attendance. During a lull in the conversation, I spoke up, “Mr. Palmer, my name is Sam Kouvaris from Channel 4 here in town and John Tucker told me that you’d go live with me on the six o’clock news tonight if I came down here and asked you politely,” I stuttered. Palmer continued hitting practice shots and without looking up said, “He did, did he?” “Yes sir,” I stammered. Palmer stopped, looked up, smiled and said, “Do you know where I’m staying?” “Yes sir,” I managed to answer. “Be there early and we’ll do it,” and with that shook my hand and went back to practicing. Why would perhaps the most famous athlete in the world agree to such a thing without a single hesitation? A long lost reason: Loyalty. He knew that John Tucker, his long time friend, would not steer him wrong. I arrived early (as instructed, again, rare) and was treated to a couple of the most entertaining hours of my young career. The live shot went off without a hitch and I left there saying to myself, “Come on! I just had beers with ARNOLD PALMER!”
A couple of years later, the Sr. TPC was being held at the Valley Course at the Players Club. Palmer was in the field, and they planned the grand opening of The Plantation at Ponte Vedra, with his appearance in town. I was asked to write the biographies of several players in the official program that year, one of them being Arnold Palmer’s. I was at the Plantation for the opening with several hundred others, and met Arnold on the bridge to the 12th tee. I had the program with me, and thought I might get him to sign the article I had written. Palmer took the program from me, and insisted on reading the entire thing while everybody else was waiting. Afterwards, he again shook my hand, said thanks, and signed it. Again, more than I expected, always renewing my faith in what can be right with professional sports.
Maybe Arnold Palmer’s explosion on the American scene, his values and place in history can never be repeated. Perhaps the confluence of sports, television and personality were a once in history happening, but there’s no reason we can’t continue to learn from his example.
A PGA Tour pro once said, “We should take 50 cents of every dollar we make, and give it to Arnold Palmer.” That might be a little low. He propelled two tours, the PGA Tour and the Sr. PGA Tour, into the public psyche as legitimate sporting events. He was more gracious in defeat than in victory. And more than once he made me think . . . all is right with the world.