All discussions stopped as Arnold Palmer approached the green.
The scene was repeated thousands of times over the years in tournaments around the world: Palmer, hitching his pants, walking as though he was late for his flight, locked into the moment.
Palmer, the most important golfer in the game’s history, was different from the rest. Why? Because sometime during that round – maybe on that green if you were close enough to his ball – he would look at you square in the eye. He might even nod and give you that crooked grin. He acknowledged your presence, his way of saying, “Thank you.”
I was one of those spectators many times. Palmer was the only hero I ever put on that pedestal. I loved golf and I admired the way he played the game – all-out, firing at hole locations the size of a closet, willing 20-footers into the cup, charging down the fairway with ambition pouring off his sloped shoulders.
His death Sunday gave me pause. He looked so frail last April at the Masters that one sensed he was near the end, but the news still carried a jolt. Palmer cannot be replaced. He was a singular man with singular magnetism. Long before I became a sportswriter and columnist, I was an unabashed fan of Arnold Palmer.
My parents took me to Pebble Beach when I was 11. There, I saw Palmer for the first time and drank in that persona – cigarette dangling from his lip, the initials “A.D.P.” stitched onto his red cardigan sweater, ruddy complexion born of a life in the sun. Approximately half the Monterey Peninsula followed him that day while we waited alongside the 14th green for a close-up look.
And here he came, pitching his third shot to about 6 feet and – knock-kneed as he hunched over the putt – rolling it home for birdie. He almost trotted by us as he stepped toward the 15th tee.
When I was 21, I bought my first golf ticket six months before the third round of the U.S. Open. Pebble Beach was the Open host for the first time and Palmer was in contention. That morning, Palmer shared the practice green with eventual champion Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, a young Lanny Wadkins and others. I thought I was in golf heaven.
When Palmer lined up an important 4-foot putt at the scenic seventh, two women in front of me fell to their knees and prayed for Palmer to hole it. They laughed as they rose to their feet and figured they just helped him.
Men wanted to be Palmer. Women were drawn to him. He had the “it” factor. Nicklaus hit majestic tee shots, high and in the air forever. Palmer’s drives, ignited by that buggy-whip swing, looked and sounded like an artillery shot – a low right-to-left trajectory that pierced the air and scooted forward on the fairway. When old-timers talk about persimmon drivers and “hitting it on the screws,” they’re talking Palmer. He threw himself at the ball and squeezed out every precious yard.
His arrival in the 1950s coincided with golf’s arrival on TV. The camera loved Palmer and he loved it back. He carried the game from black-and-white to color, from the country club to the masses, from the pro shop to Madison Avenue. His seven major victories came attached with punch-in-the-gut losses that increased his likeability. For a modern-day reference, think Phil Mickelson. But back then, Palmer was the first guy to make golf look cool.
When he hired Mark McCormack in 1959, Palmer ushered in the era of the sports agent. His business empire, branded by the iconic umbrella, became a model for Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James. Consider: Palmer earned approximately $40 million in 2015, over four decades after his 62nd and final PGA Tour victory.
Skeptics laughed when he co-founded the Golf Channel. They’re not laughing now. When you order a mixture of ice tea and lemonade, you’re having an Arnold Palmer.
Because sometime during that round, he would look at you square in the eye. He might even nod and give you that crooked grin. He acknowledged your presence, his way of saying, “Thank you.”
Why did his star not fade? Where did his staying power come from? The answer: He was one of us all along.
Palmer was the son of a greenskeeper who wasn’t even allowed into the clubhouse at Latrobe (Pa.) CC. He was barred from the club pool and was banished to the nearby creek where he “swam with the snakes.” Years later, he bought that club.
I still followed Palmer as he wound down his years at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. I asked him a few questions and shared some informal conversations alongside peers in the press room. He was never impolite and his wit was sharp. His handshake was like his game, bold and powerful, and his eye always caught yours.
I never met an athlete more real, nor one I will miss more.