You know people won’t live forever but with Arnold Palmer you thought that might be possible. He lived life with such passion and spirit yet with a humility and grace that never wavered. Palmer battled several illnesses over the past two years and died today at age 87 of heart complications.
Usually tucked in the back pages of sports, Palmer brought the game to the forefront with his charisma and style. His game shoved him into the limelight when the son of a golf pro and greens keeper won the US Amateur. Arnold was no country club type. He was a worker and looked the part. His arms jutting out under his short-sleeved shirt, Palmer hit it hard and had a “go for it” mentality that was appealing to the casual golf fan. His game was “made for TV” and his ascension to the top of the sport coincided with the explosion of television in America in the late ’50’s and 60’s.
With seven major wins including four Masters, Palmer validated his fame and popularity by winning. He finished his career with 62 wins and 10 more on the senior tour. In fact, Arnold basically invented both tours with his own personality and style. “Every professional golfer should give Arnold Palmer 50 cents of every dollar they make,” one of his competitors once said. And he was right. As good as Jack Nicklaus was and Hogan and Snead, Nelson and the rest, nobody captured the imagination and catapulted the game forward like Arnold Palmer.
For about 25 years, since his design company was based here in Ponte Vedra, I spent a lot of time with Arnold professionally and socially. I’m often asked if there are highlights to my career. My answer for a while has been “I’ve had breakfast with Muhammad Ali, beers with Arnold Palmer and flown with the Blue Angels.” The answer I usually get back is, “Doesn’t get any better than that.” And that’s true. It really doesn’t.
Despite being one of the most recognizable sports figures in the world, Arnold never lost the common touch or the ability to give you his undivided attention. A conversation with Palmer was a real talk, not some canned speech he spouted as he moved on.
When Arnold Palmer Course Design opened the Mill Cove Golf Club in Arlington, Palmer was there to play in the opening round. I was in the foursome behind him and brought my dad, a non-golfer along for the fun. After nine holes, my dad went to the clubhouse to get something to drink and wait for us to finish the back nine. Arnold finished about 15 minutes in front of me but when I came to the final hole we were playing that day, Palmer and my dad were standing on the balcony as a makeshift gallery. I waved and they both waved back, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I don’t know how Arnold and my dad were introduced but they’re about the same age and both served in the Coast Guard so they had a common bond. And of course, Arnold had a common bond with everybody. I had hit 6-iron in to about 20 feet and was eyeing the putt from several angles when Arnold said, “Hey Sam, while we’re young!” with a big laugh. Luckily I made the putt, and had Arnold sign my Wilson 8802 putter, the one he used for years, when I got to the clubhouse. My dad still tells that story and more of it, with Arnold ordering shrimp, because my dad liked shrimp, even though none was on the menu. The chef brought shrimp.
Everybody who ever came in contact with Palmer has a story. All are about his grace and kindness with humility and humor mixed in. If you met Arnold once, you thought you had a connection for life. He shook your hand and looked you in the eye. He was polite and kind. He was truly someone to look up to.
Which is how we should honor Arnold. Look at the verve he had in his life and follow it. Look at his kindness and charity and emulate it. Remember his polite manner, his commitment to doing his best no matter the situation and put that into your own actions.
Even though he’s gone I won’t use “was” to describe Arnold Palmer.
He is one of a kind.