Golf will never be the same for two reasons. First, that Arnold Palmer lived. Second, that Arnold Palmer has died.
The single most important figure in the history of the game – you can argue with me about this if you want, but you’d be wrong – passed away Sunday at the age of 87. It’s disorienting thinking about a world without him.
Golf – actually, all of sports – as we know it today owes everything to Palmer.
It was Palmer who created the modern image of sporting celebrity. It was Palmer who invented the concept of sports marketing with a handshake deal with Mark McCormack. It was Palmer who made golf a viable television entity. It was Palmer who invented the idea of the modern Grand Slam. It was Palmer who set the bar for civility and grace and manners that every athlete today can only aspire to achieve.
And closer to home here in Augusta, it was Arnold Palmer who made the Masters Tournament the Masters.
“He’s done so much for us,” said three-time major winner Nick Price. “He made the Masters. I’m telling you, hemade the Masters. There’s no doubt. When he won in 1958, the tournament was only 24 years old.”
Arnie was born in Latrobe, Pa., on Sept. 10, 1929, but Arnie’s Army was born in 1958 at Augusta. The soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon were offered free admission to the Masters for the first time and the club recruited them to run the leaderboards. The servicemen quickly embraced the charismatic Coast Guard veteran, swarming in his wake as he charged to a one-shot victory over Ken Venturi.
By the next year, “Arnie’s Army” showed up on one of the Masters boards, and his legion swelled everywhere golf is played as he won four green jackets every even-numbered year between 1958-64. His era of dominance happened to coincide with the advent of golf on television, and his magnetism came through on camera.
“When he came on, and television came on, it was a mix made in heaven,” Price said. “Arnold Palmer, television and golf. Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus obviously did a lot, but it was Arnold who had that magnetism that brought everyone together.”
Palmer connected with the golfing public like no player ever had. You were simply drawn to his energy and charisma and bravado. He was a pin-up idol in a buttoned-up sport. Only Seve Ballesteros from a European perspective had a similar kind of impact on the sport. Even Tiger Woods as the biggest sports celebrity in the world could not match Palmer’s universal appeal.
Ask any player – past or present – what Arnie meant to the game and they will wax on. Chances are, every one of them received a signed letter from Palmer at some point congratulating them on a victory or milestone achievement in their own careers and lives.
“I would say what hasn’t he done for the game would be easier to explain,” said former PGA Tour winner Billy Kratzert, an eight-time Masters participant. “He might have been looking at the whole crowd, but when he looked over there you kind of felt he was looking at you directly. To have that sense connecting to the people, that was huge. You connect to the people, you win major championships, you win other golf tournaments, you’re friends with presidents, celebrities like Bob Hope, club companies, first guy with a jet. What hasn’t he done? Everyone said Tiger (Woods) made golf cool, well that’s probably true. But the guy who piqued the interest of everyone about the game and brought it to where the golf is pretty cool (was Arnie). I’m watching this guy hit from under the tree and making birdie, he’s got that Pall Mall hanging out of his mouth and he’s hanging around Jackie Gleason and Bob Hope, that’s pretty cool.”
There’s a reason Palmer is still one of the top paid golfers decades after he stopped competing.
“He made the modern game,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North. “He’s the man that put us on the map. We said for every dollar we make, we should give twenty-five cents to Arnold.”
We were blessed to have Palmer grace the game in the most public fashion for nearly seven decades. Long after he stopped being competitive, his mere presence at a tournament or in a pro-am drew us to him like moths to a flame. Even the most cynical media members stood up and applauded him as he tearfully exited the U.S. Open at his hometown Oakmont in 1994.
In 1988 in Richmond, Va., I went and saw Arnold Palmer win his last tournament at a Senior Tour event called the Crestar Classic. That was a year before I became a professional sports writer and had never met him, but I knew if The King was leading a golf tournament in your hometown you damn sure better show up and watch him.
Like so many of us who’ve been blessed to see him year after year in places like Augusta and Bay Hill and St. Andrews, Palmer’s stature grew every time he showed up. He never treated anyone with anything but respect and dignity. Old sportswriting friends like Ron Green Sr. might have traced their relationships with Palmer back to having breakfast with him at their hotel before the 1958 Masters, but he treated even his newest acquaintances with the same warm smile and thoughtfulness.
It’s already hard trying to comprehend an April without Arnie at the Champions Dinner or on that first tee at Augusta. Many of us have made a point of getting in place early on Thursday morning just to see him make that familiar lash at the golf ball. When he wasn’t fit enough to hit a tee shot this year, we still flocked to the first tee to see him just sitting there. I stood not more than 10 feet from his chair and he looked over toward the ropes and stared me straight in the eyes and gave a thumbs up. He might have been looking at anyone around me, but that image will forever burn in our memories as a last precious gift from The King.
It’s another personal story that stands out on a Sunday night when the reality that Mr. Palmer is no longer with us. It was at a reception on the eve of the 2006 Ryder Cup in Ireland introducing some already forgotten golf course his company designed. Palmer stood up to give a little speech, and as was often the case his emotions got the better of him. He was already tearing up as he toasted his late wife, Winnie, and his new bride, Kit. Then for some reason he thanked all of us.
“I’ve been lucky to live the best life any man could wish for,” Palmer said as we all had something in our eyes.
Palmer indeed lived a blessed life. He didn’t win as many majors as his Big Three mates Nicklaus or Player, but he won more hearts than any golfer who’s ever lived.
Yet we are the ones who were blessed to have Arnold Palmer around for so long as the game’s greatest ambassador. No one can ever replace him, but every lesson he left behind will live forever in our hearts and in the game.
Instead of saying goodbye, we should simply say “Thank you Arnold Palmer.”