I called him “Arnold,” in part because that’s what his secretary Doc Giffin called him, and I was with Doc the first few times we got together; also because I wasn’t old enough to call him “Arnie,” and “Mr. Palmer” seemed way too formal for a man whom I considered to be a friend.
Arnold Palmer and I were born 33 years and 1 day apart. He was one of the most famous men in the world before I took my first breath, and he was still one of the most beloved figures in sports when I met him. The fact that he befriended me, a young writer who could do absolutely nothing for him, was and is a mystery. But it also says a lot about why he remained so popular for so long.
Our first meeting could only be called such in the academic sense. It came during a rain delay at the Masters sometime in the early ’70s. I was a hefty prepubescent kid in an ill-fitting Munsingwear shirt. During a Georgia spring deluge, I ran headlong into the clubhouse, right past the Pinkerton guard, without a badge to my name, a prelude to a life of sliding in where I didn’t belong. As I pulled up inside, there he stood, Arnie, cooler than Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” He looked at me like an old pal itching to catch up or a favorite uncle about to tell an off-color joke. When he saw the “grounds only” ticket beneath the penguin on my shirt, he said, “You know, you shouldn’t be in here with that. If they see you, they might ask you to leave the golf course.”
He put his arm around my shoulder and looked around as if he were about to help me escape from some movie caper with Angie Dickenson driving the getaway car. Once Arnold determined that the coast was clear, he walked me out to an awning where I could stand out of the rain without violating the terms of my patron pass. “You OK here?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said. Then I realized that I was about to blow an opportunity. “Wait,” I said as I fumbled for the pairing sheet in my back pocket. “May I have your autograph?”
“Of course,” he said as if he were apologizing for not thinking of it first.
Unlike a lot of athletes who looked like they had stepped in dog pooh when you asked a question, Arnold always leaned closer and smiled.
That simple interaction stuck with me for half a century. Like many golf writers, I had the great privilege of sitting through numerous Palmer press conferences during which everyone in the room felt like they were visiting with a buddy. Later, when you read the transcripts, you realized that he hadn’t said anything extraordinary. But the way he said nothing drew everyone close. Unlike a lot of athletes who looked like they had stepped in dog pooh when you asked a question, Arnold always leaned closer and smiled. There was never any snark or sarcasm. Even when a nervous journalist fell into a verbal spasm while trying to fishtail his way back to a cogent question, Arnold would jump to the rescue, interrupting to say, “I think you’re trying to ask…” and then provide a perfect answer.
One year at the Sea Island Lodge, I ran into Guy Kinnings, currently the No. 2 man at the DP World Tour, who had just come from a meeting with Arnold. “You know, (when I was with IMG) I took new clients to hear Arnie give a speech. After the speech was over, I would ask, ‘Did you like it?’ They’d always say, ‘Yes, he was great. The best I’ve ever seen.’ Then I’d say, ‘Can you summarize what he talked about?’ And they never could. They’d just walked out of the speech, and they had no idea what the man had talked about. I said to them, ‘Exactly! It’s not what he says, because he really doesn’t say much of anything. It’s how he says nothing that makes Arnold Palmer the King.’ ”
The gift was simple. He always made you feel like the most important person around. In the early ’90s, on the Tuesday of Bay Hill Invitational week, I saw him with a real estate mogul who was about to pay Arnold seven figures to design a golf course. The developer and I walked around the lodge together and found him coming out of the cart barn. He greeted us like long-lost cousins. Then he said, “I’m sorry I can’t shake your hand. I’ve been working on the brake shoes on these carts and I’m greasy.” Arnold was, in fact, holding brake parts in his giant right hand.
A few minutes later, I watched the developer walk away. “Wow,” was the only word I heard.
I was fortunate enough to help Arnold write two of his books, which meant I got to spend a lot of one-on-one time with him. During almost every visit to his hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, I found him in his workshop, grinding the flange on a wedge or putting new grips on a set of irons. If he wasn’t there, he was at the large table in his office signing memorabilia that people sent him from all over the world. “I sign everything,” he told me. “I want my autograph to be worthless because I’ve signed so much stuff.”
I got to play Latrobe Country Club with him once. When I arrived at the club and went downstairs in the clubhouse to the Palmer Grill, he greeted me, as always, like the best friend he’d ever had. “Here, I got you set up with a locker,” he said, showing me to the locker room. “And I got you some towels.”
Deacon Palmer might have thought politeness was the least a man could do, but his son showed that it was the most important trait of all.
When we went out to play, I saw that he had his own golf cart, not because he didn’t want to ride with me or either of the other guys in our group, but because he had two staff bags full of clubs that he was taking out. When I counted them, I said to one of the other guys, “He’s playing with 44 clubs.” The response was, “Oh, he’s taken some out. He normally plays with 60.”
One of the 44 was a hybrid that I recognized as the Ben Hogan brand. Callaway owned Hogan at the time, but I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t recognized the coloration. Arnold had ground the Ben Hogan name off the sole plate.
I asked him why he had such a problem with Hogan. Like most golf nerds, I’d heard the story about the 1958 Masters when Arnold played a practice round with Hogan and afterward, in the dining room, Hogan said, “How did Arnold Palmer get into the Masters?” As legend had it, that quip fired Arnie up, and he won his first major that Sunday.
He shook his head when I asked about the story. “That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “I just can’t abide rudeness. My father told me that it takes no talent to be polite. It’s the floor, not the ceiling. It’s what’s expected. If you can’t be polite, you’re going to have a hard road to walk.”
I’ve repeated that line hundreds of times since he said it, to my own kids and others that I have coached; to colleagues and young athletes who needed to hear it. Deacon Palmer might have thought politeness was the least a man could do, but his son showed that it was the most important trait of all.
I’m often asked if it was phony, if Arnold’s disposition was an act. He was a tough and demanding boss – I could see that every time we were together – but he was also beloved by everyone from the dishwasher to the head of his businesses.
When our mutual friend Mark McCormack died, Arnold gave an emotional eulogy at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Afterward, at a reception at the Harvard Club, we were sharing McCormack stories when Arnold lowered his head. His cheeks flushed and I could see his lips tighten. A glisten formed at the corner of his eye. In that moment, I remembered that rainstorm in Augusta and the large hand that wrapped around my shoulder, showing me out the door and back to the grounds where I belonged. Now it was my turn. I put my hand on Arnold’s shoulder and we moved a few feet away, out of sight.
No, nothing was fake with Arnold Palmer. What you saw was who he was.
This week, the PGA Tour goes back to Bay Hill where the ’60s architecture of the lodge and the throwback starter hut between the first and 10th tees make you think the man might walk out onto the putting green at any moment, a pink sweater around his neck and a smile and wave for everyone he sees.
Arnold has been gone almost seven years now. I think of him often, and I miss him a lot. Let’s hope there are still players on the PGA Tour who feel the same.
© 2023 Global Golf Post LLC
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?