Sometimes when people ask me about my job and whether I still like it, I have a pretty stock answer that really rings true in my head. “Are you kidding,” I’ll say, “I’ve flown with the Blue Angels and have had beers with Arnold Palmer, what’s not to like?”
And that’s true.
I’ve used Palmer as that standard of excellence, for all others to be compared to. And a lot of people have done that. Becaue it’s so easy. Arnold has always made it easy. He’s the only athlete I’ve ever met who makes you feel like he’s got all the time in the world and you’re his only concern of the day when he’s talking to you. He has more grace in the end of his little finger than most athletes acquire in a lifetime.
“Everybody out here should turn around and hand Arnold 50 cents on every dollar he makes,” said Curtis Strange, perhaps the only smart thing Curtis has ever said.
Palmer’s final apperance at the Masters as a competitor was a parade, and a celebration of his 50 years at Augusta. Palmer won the Masters four times, but his connection with the tournament and Augusta National is much more than that. It’s the place where Palmer became a star. It’s where he made his connection with everybody, golfer and non-golfer alike. Frank Chirkinian was the producer of CBS’s coverage of the Masters and recognized immediately that the camera loved Arnold. His charisma came right through the lens. Because it was, and is, real. A blue-collar guy winning in a white collar game.
But it was more than that.
Palmer is unfailingly polite, a characteristic he says his father instilled in him. Last week Palmer was in Ponte Vedra at his design company offices for the day. I was invited to do an interview with Palmer, but it turned out to be much more than that. Arnold asked me to stick around for lunch, and his favorite desert (strawberry vannila fudge sundaes) and just some chat time. He was affable as ever and during our interview told a great story about his latest (19th) hole in one, just three days earlier on 17 with 7-wood on his home course Bay Hill.
I asked him if there was one shot that remained in his memory of the thousands he’s hit in the Masters, one that might have been the best shot he’d ever hit there. “In 1960, I hit the Eisenhower tree on 17 with my drive and it fell straight down. I hit four-iron there on the green, made the putt and went on to win,” Arnold recalled like it was yesterday. We laughed, and turned the cameras off. He stepped aside and paused, and said without a smile “I could have told you about a bunch of bad ones I hit there. Like that 6 on 18 in 1961.”
Here we were 45 years later, and Palmer was still seething about the tournament that got away. The competitive fire still raging inside. And that’s what I’ve always liked about Arnold. He wants to win and makes no bones about it.
I was watching his final round on television last Friday and his interview afterwards. Palmer cried. And we all cried with him. “I guess I’m just a sentimental sop,” Arnold said when asked about his feelings. (I thought Bill Macatee and Peter Kostis were horrible by the way). But true to form, Arnold thanked the fans for their support over the years at Augusta. No Arnold, thank you.