How could one person mean so much to so many?
As the tributes and accolades poured forth after the death of Arnold Palmer on Sunday, that was the question begged.
He touched so many people, in so many walks of life, all over the globe, that the effect of his presence became staggering.
Even more amazing, despite having led such a ubiquitous life, he may have been history’s only universally loved celebrity. He didn’t have any enemies. Anywhere.
Yes, he was a fabulous golfer, though not the best to ever pick up a club. He was an astute businessman, too. One of his greatest gifts was the ability to wed golf and business. In so doing, he made golf the booming, world-wide industry it is today.
But it took more than that. It took a unique blend of charisma, the humility to never forget his humble roots, and an appreciation of every member of Arnie’s Army.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the phenomenon that was Arnold Palmer is to describe the effect he had on someone he never met. Someone who was just a fan, captured by Arnie’s aura.
One of my most prized possessions remains an Official Souvenir Program from the 1963 Ryder Cup matches. They were held at East Lake Country Club in Atlanta. Palmer served as captain of the United States team, its last player-captain.
The program is a cherished gift from my Dad, who was fortunate enough to attend the matches. At eight years of age, I was deemed too young to be expected to maintain requisite silence at all times necessary. I was terribly disappointed.
So, a family friend attending the matches with Dad made it his personal crusade to obtain for me the autograph of every participant in the matches. Even the members of the British team (the rest of Europe wasn’t included until 1979.) Among those signed in were Peter Alliss (in his pre-announcing days), Christie O’Connor, and Neil Coles.
On the American side, Bob Goalby (and wife Sarah), Dave Ragan (and wife Joanie), Johnny Pott, Dow Finsterwald, Billy Maxwell, Julius Boros, Gene Littler, Tony Lema, and Billy Casper all autographed the program.
Turn to page 65, where the United States team is introduced, and the first picture, and bio, belong to Arnold Palmer. And there, right below his black-and-white picture, in blue ink, is the perfect script lettering of his autograph.
I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve proudly gazed at that autograph over the years. Initially, I was awed by the thought that Arnold Palmer actually held my program in his own hands!
Later, I understood more significance in the signature. He took the time to pen his name with precision, so that it was easily read. Now imagine how many times he signed that way over the years, always taking the time to do so with clarity, making the recipient feel special.
Now, you start to grasp what made Arnold Palmer so special.
I patterned my putting stance after Palmer: the distinctive knees together, feet apart address. No matter that no one else ever adopted such a stance. I’ve stuck with it for over 50 years, because, well, that’s how Arnie did it.
And when it came time to buy my first set of adult clubs, I was lucky enough to find a great deal on a slightly used set of Arnold Palmer clubs.
How I loved those clubs! No, they didn’t enable me to play like Palmer, but at least a little part of him was with me every time I ventured onto a course. I still have them, in a box in the basement, carefully wrapped and preserved. I couldn’t ever bear to part with them.
Tough losses always stay with you, and I still agonize over Palmer’s loss in the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco. Palmer held a seven-shot lead with but nine holes to play. He lost the entire lead over the next eight holes, and lost the playoff to Billy Casper the next day.
Only Palmer could lose a tournament in such spectacular fashion, and only then because he was Arnold Palmer.
When he made the turn, he realized that he had a chance to break Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open scoring record. Rather than play it safe and win the Open, Palmer went for the record and lost the Open. How could you not root for someone like that?
My remote connection to Palmer was fueled last week as the Tour Championship made its annual visit to East Lake. Winner Rory McIlroy walked away with $11.5 million. Such winnings are a direct result of Palmer’s popularity ushering golf into a new age.
And this week, the Ryder Cup matches take place up at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. Palmer won’t be there, but his presence will be felt.
No matter how remotely.