He went out as The King, a moniker he earned but never publicly accepted. When Arnold Daniel Palmer of Latrobe, Pa., died Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh due to complications from heart problems at age 87, he left us in the rarest of ways: On top, not just inside the circles of the game he played with unbridled passion for seven decades but also atop the world of sports and popular culture, where he became a ubiquitous figure. He was “Arnie,” the coolest guy ever to light up a smoke, throw on a cardigan or pull a 3-iron out of a bag.
Of all the clichés that have been and will be thrown out to describe Arnold Palmer in the coming days and weeks, one that will receive nothing but knowing smiles and loving nods is: There will never be another like him. And while that platitude technically applies to everyone, past and present, Arnie reached much further into the irreplaceable realm in no small part because he so perfectly matched his time.
Run down the list of male icons from the 1960s, the men whose photos still draw us in like fine works of art, and you won’t go far before getting to Arnie, a striking figure who was as suave as Sean Connery in his 007 days, as cool as Steve McQueen skinny-dipping with a model in Malibu and as politically savvy as JFK at his peak. With a rugged face and an inviting smile, Arnie exuded the kind of cool that would have put the Rat Pack in short britches. That’s the reason he could sell everything from soap-on-a-rope to Cessna Citations. If Arnie endorsed it, it had to be hip.
And that was before he ever picked up a golf club.
On the course, he was the kind of athlete we all wanted to be, a man who didn’t so much hit the ball as attack it, a swashbuckler who went for shots that no one else saw. When he pulled them off, he would hitch his trousers with the pad of his hand and stalk the course like a big-game hunter, a dramatic tic many tried to copy, but no one matched him.
In his prime, every iron shot looked like it had been fired from a gun, cutting through the air at a boring trajectory, lower and harder than almost anyone else’s. And, man, could he putt. Nobody hit more 20- to 30-footers that were in the hole the entire way and very few players could make one when it mattered the way Arnie did. The numbers speak for themselves: 92 professional victories, seven majors.
But golf was just a calling card, his entree onto the public stage. There have been a lot of multiple major winners. Tom Watson has eight, one more than Arnie. Gary Player has nine along with Ben Hogan. Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead both had seven, the same number Palmer had. But no one spoke of Sarazen and Snead the way they speak of Arnie. No one puts Player, a wonderful man who has done many great things for the game, on the same plane as Palmer. As much as fans respect Watson, they don’t love him the way people loved Arnie. And none of those players had the selling power Arnie kept for decades after winning his last title.
How did he do it? The answer is as simple as the stories we tell. And everyone who ran into the man has one.
In the late 1970s, when Arnie played in an exhibition at a relatively new course in the Georgia mountains, one of his playing partners was a grocery store owner, a country businessman who epitomized the term good ol’ boy. Everyone had a great time and Arnie went on his way. Three years later, as Arnie was out jogging on the cart paths at Bay Hill, that same grocer jumped out of a cart at the first tee, stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Ed Looper, you remember me, don’t you?”
Arnie stopped, laughed, put a hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “No, Ed, but I will from now on.” And he did. Every year that Looper and his buddies went to the tournament that’s now the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Arnie would make a point of shaking his hand and calling him by name.
He made similar impressions thousands of times. On the Tuesday before the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 1992, a developer who was about to pay Arnie seven figures to build a golf course walked behind the golf shop at Bay Hill to speak to him. Arnie came out of the cart barn like he was greeting a long-lost cousin and said, “I’m sorry I can’t shake your hand. I’ve been working on the brake shoes of these golf carts and my hands are greasy.” In fact he still had a couple of cart parts in his left hand.
After a few minutes of chitchat the developer turned away. The only thing he said was, “Wow.”
It was a reaction we all had at some point. Covering Arnie was a reporter’s dream, not because he was such a great newsmaker but because of how welcome he made you feel. Sitting through one of his interviews convinced you that he was the greatest athlete in history. Then you went through the transcript in search of a quote that wasn’t there. He never really said much but he always did so in a way that made everyone feel like a buddy. Even reporters who collapsed into rambling verbal palsies could count on Arnie to jump in at the right moment and rescue a drowning friend.
I had the good fortune to co-author his last two books, spending a good deal of time with him, reminiscing about stories from his playing days and after. We played golf together at Latrobe Country Club where he took me as a partner against two of his regular companions. I remember every minute of that afternoon, but none more vividly than when I first arrived on the premises.
As if the idea of playing with him was not intimidating enough, to get to the course you had to fly into the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, make a left onto Arnold Palmer Drive, turn right into Arnold Palmer’s Latrobe Country Club, go downstairs to the Palmer grill, order an Arnold Palmer to wet your dry and trembling lips and wait until Arnold Palmer showed up and treated you like the most important guest who had ever visited the place. “I have a locker for you,” he said. “Let’s get you set up. Do you need a towel?”
After a great round full of jokes and stories, a few good shots and feelings of camaraderie that defy description, I stood on the 18th green and wondered, how could it get any better than this? Then he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Let me buy you a drink,” and I had my answer.
In more recent years, the cruel pull of time took its inevitable toll. The confident walk became a halting shuffle; the quick wit slowed and became quietly measured. But the best parts remained. As one of our playing partners that day in Latrobe said, “To be hard of hearing, he’s the best listener I’ve ever seen.” He carried that gift with him to the end along with the genuine care he felt for all his friends and acquaintances.
One of the most touching moments few people saw came in 2003 at the New York memorial service for IMG founder Mark H. McCormack, Arnie’s longtime agent and business partner. After giving an emotional eulogy, Arnold left the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in tears. An hour later, he was still crying as Mark’s widow, the former tennis standout Betsy Nagelsen, consoled him in a quiet corner of the Harvard Club during the wake. It was a telling scene: two famous people experiencing ordinary human hardships. Betsy had lost her husband but Arnold had lost his friend.
Today we have lost a king. The game has lost a legend. And we all, whether we knew him closely or not, have lost a friend. Rest in peace, Arnie. You deserve it.