It’s terrible that it takes the passing and mourning the loss of a mutual friend to reconnect you with people who were integral parts of your life at one point. They drift away for various reasons but in this case, the death of Arnold Palmer brought a lot of people back into my life who I’d lost touch with through my own fault.
So I spent part of the day talking to friends and associates of Arnold Palmer here in town. John Tucker, one of the founders of the Greater Jacksonville Open and Liz McCarty, Palmer’s Administrative assistant for 18 years. I also talked with Erik Larsen and Harrison Minchew, golf designers for Palmer’s company in Ponte Vedra, Larsen eventually becoming President of Arnold Palmer Course design. He told me he was just trying to “keep his head above the flood of memories.” Erick will be at Palmer’s memorial service next week in Latrobe. Harrison recalled Palmer as the personification of the “Golden Rule.” “He treated everybody well, just like you’d want to be treated. Always kind and polite.”
Arnold and John Tucker became friends in 1962, meeting in Pensacola. “We hit it off for one reason or another right away,” Tucker recalled sitting in a comfortable chairs on his front lawn in San Marco.
Tucker and a group of Jacksonville businessmen wanted to start a golf tournament here In Jacksonville. Their meeting at Silvers Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach is part of the lore of what is now The Players in Ponte Vedra. But then, getting Arnold Palmer to play in your tournament was the key. Tucker was working for the phone company here in town and laughed when he said, “I was the only guy with free long distance. So I just started calling people and got some dates for a golf tournament.”
Palmer’s relationship with Tucker brought him to town and he took a liking to Jacksonville. He brought Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player (who was friends with one of my predecessors here at Channel 4 Dick Stratton) and the Greater Jacksonville Open was born. “When Arnold gave his blessing the money was better, the accommodations were better the ticket sales were better. Without him, I don’t know that we would have made it.”
John eventually ran the TPC in it’s infancy here in town and told me today, none of the golf presence here in North Florida would have happened without Palmer’s initial influence. The GJO even printed manuals about how to run a tournament that eventually made their way to other fledgling PGA Tour events. Then Commissioner Deane Beman took notice, investigated what was going on in Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra and the story of The Players home in North Florida had its beginning.
“He was a guy you’d have loved even if he wasn’t a golfer, even if he wasn’t famous,” Tucker said. “I played a lot of golf with Arnold and when he was on the first tee he’d give you whatever (strokes) you wanted. He didn’t want to play for much money. Just enough that when he took it from you you’d notice,” he said with a laugh. “And I can’t tell you how many times he’d make a putt on 18 wo win 1-up.”
Liz McCarthy, his administrative assistant for 18 years said he was the same on and off the golf course; she traveled the world with Palmer, organizing openings of new golf courses and appearances. She said he “opened doors for people, looked you in the eye when he shook your hand, took his hat off when appropriate. The consummate, competitive gentleman.”
“He was at a photo shoot and he kept taking his hat off when he was talking with people,” Liz recalled. “The photographer noticed and said something to me and I had to tell him ‘when he’s talking to a woman or he’s shaking somebody’s hand, that’s what he’ll do. That’s how he was raised.'”
Competitive was part of Palmer’s personality and McCarthy saw it after his playing career ended. “He wanted to win and his competition was now in the design business,” she said outside a coffee shop at the Town Center.
Unlike what we’d ever seen in sports before, Palmer embraced and welcomed his competitors as friends. And that didn’t change once his playing days were over.
“He and Jack (Nicklaus) were close,” McCarthy pointed out. “He was close with Gary (Player). When Winnie (Palmer’s first wife) died, the first people to arrive in Latrobe were Jack and Barbra Nicklaus.”
One thing that Liz said really struck a chord with me. Arnold Palmer had friends in Jacksonville, and homes in Orlando and Latrobe. But people all over the world thought they had a personal connection with him. Even if they had met him for 30 seconds, they felt like he was “their guy.”
“He had that ability, which was just part of his personality, to look you in the eye, listen to what you said, and really understand what you were talking about. It wasn’t an act, he really felt it.”
So in other words, people thought they had a personal connection with Arnold Palmer
Because they did.