Today, October 4th marks the Public Memorial Service for one of the Greatest Golfers of all time, Arnold Palmer. We wanted to share an incredible article about the man himself originally published in ScoreGolf Magazine by Lorne Rubensteain.
Arnold Palmer grew up in a small town and lived a large life. It is a measure of the man that he returned to, and lived in, that small town of Latrobe, Pa., every summer, and that his accomplishments in, and contributions to, golf comprised countless, indelible moments small and large.
He touched all of us, didn’t he? Even those people who didn’t know a birdie in golf from a birdie in badminton related to this fierce gentleman who rose to his worldwide celebrity with grace, and who demonstrated that whenever and wherever he travelled, and, of course, back in Latrobe. He bought the Latrobe Country Club, where his father Deacon was the greenkeeper and head pro superintendent, and he also purchased the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando.
His father and Palmer himself worked in the steel mill in Latrobe. Palmer was not to the country club born, although his game took him to the most famous country clubs in the world, including Augusta National. He directed that his ashes be spread at the Latrobe Country Club. That says it all about his feelings for his true home.
Palmer was the blue-collar golfer whose wins in 62 PGA Tour events and seven majors moved him into a white-collar world. But his heart and soul were with everyman. His comfort in his own skin and his welcoming nature made anybody who met him comfortable in their own. Players and people in golf have been remembering him in the hours since they became aware of his death late Sunday afternoon. Annika Sorenstam and Fred Couples broke down in tears while remembering Palmer on Golf Channel, which he co-founded in January 1995. Couples said he couldn’t continue because he was sobbing. He got back on the line a moment later, and spoke of his love for Palmer.
Who didn’t love Palmer, and feel good in his company? He was the quintessential individual in a sport made for individual expression. He looked dashing and so cool in the cardigan sweaters he wore, and in the manner in which he moved briskly down the course, all the while rotating his head to acknowledge his fans. He smoked, and even the way he flicked his cigarette to the ground before picking a club and playing a shot added to his style. He won big in the Mad Men era of the 1960s, he defined charisma and he played his own game, which in his later years became a mantra for the way he suggested we all approach golf.
Palmer in those later years advised golfers to “swing your swing.” He learned the game before launch monitors arrived, and terms such as spin rate, smash factor, dynamic loft and attack angle became part of the golfing lexicon. He did attack the golf ball, though, with a slashing swing and a helicopter finish. You wouldn’t say his swing looked elegant, but he was ferociously strong and he controlled the face of the club through impact. His drives travelled fast and low, and ran hard down the fairways. And whatever he shot, he was there after his round with a smile for children and adults.
Palmer was telegenic. He was handsome and looked you straight in the eye when you spoke with him, and he brought golf to the masses. He reached the heights of the game and dined with kings. He was the first golfer to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2004. Jack Nicklaus received the award the next year, and Charlie Sifford was given it in 2014. There they joined the man known everywhere as ‘The King.’
But Palmer never liked being called ‘The King.’ He was too down to earth for that, Latrobe through and through.
“There’s no king in golf,” Palmer told Golf Digest in its January 2000 issue. Certainly not me. I’ve taken more from this game than I’ve given.”
Palmer did so much on and off the course. He wasn’t afraid to succeed and he wasn’t afraid to fail. He ripped at the ball with every ounce of his considerable energy, and he appeared to will the ball into the hole on the greens of the world from his knock-kneed stance and “push” stroke. It was his full swing in miniature, and he first brought it to national attention when he won the 1954 U.S. Amateur. Despite all his victories around the world since, he said that was his most important victory because it gave him the confidence that he could win.
A year later, of course, Palmer turned professional. The Canadian Open at the Weston Golf and Country Club in Toronto was the site of his first victory as a professional. Anybody who plays Weston can’t help but see the statue of Palmer just behind the first tee. Palmer’s winning score of 25-under-par 263, by the way, remained the lowest 72-hole score he ever shot.
Palmer won four Masters, in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1964. He won the 1960 U.S. Open when he came from seven shots off the lead starting the last round — Arnie’s Army watched the patented Arnie charge. He won the 1961 and 1962 Open Championships, and when he called it the most important championship in the world, well, he revived the Open. No international golfer who qualified would refuse to play the Open after Palmer entered in 1961, and won.
He loved golf, that’s for sure, and his telegenic quality was important as golf and television came together in the 1950s. It was a perfect marriage. Sixty years later, it’s difficult to believe golfers would have played yesterday for the $10 million (US) first prize that Rory McIlroy won for taking the FedExCup in Atlanta. McIlroy also won the Tour Championship there, in a playoff against Ryan Moore.
Palmer played with his buddies at Latrobe and at Bay Hill every day he could. Into his 80s, he wanted to be out on the course, believing he could improve. He was a competitor, through and through, and he kept at it as long as possible. Palmer played the Masters 50 straight years. Let that sink in.
Palmer’s rival and dear friend Nicklaus once reflected on his persistence in competing.
“I think it’s difficult for anybody to know when enough’s enough,” Nicklaus said. “I once thought Arnold should give up competitive golf, maybe not play as much. But then I thought, ‘Why?’ Arnold loves to play golf. It would be a shame for him to quit. Why in the world shouldn’t he give pleasure to himself and others who watch him?”
Exactly. Palmer, when he was at Bay Hill, liked to play with his pals in what became known as the noon “Shootout.” I was there in 1997 when I ran into him. He invited me to join his crew the next day. Unfortunately, it poured overnight and the course was closed. In those days Palmer was flying his own plane. He loved to be up in the clouds, and owned nine planes during his lifetime.
I had played with Palmer the year before, at his Latrobe club. This happened simply because I wrote to his longtime assistant Doc Giffin and asked if I might have a game with him. Palmer said sure, and I drove down from Toronto on a May day. I wrote a lengthy account for The Globe and Mail, which I can’t find online. However, here’s a piece in which I recall some of the stories from that day. Check out the toonie story.
I remember many things from that day. Palmer walked while a caddie drove a cart on which rested two tour bags full of golf clubs — maybe 40 in all. Palmer loved to experiment with equipment, and he walked off most every tee with a club in his hands, and also an Exacto knife so that he could change the grips. I can see him now, doing just that.
Every person who has come across Palmer remembers the encounter. I’m not thinking here of the tour players around the world with whom he was friends, and also counseled. I’m thinking of folks who felt Palmer was special.
I was with my friend and colleague Jeff Brooke at Bay Hill a few years ago. Here’s what Jeff wrote this morning in a text:
“Huge hands swallowed mine during a handshake. Simple chit chat, but he was dialed in on the Toronto connection.”
Another friend, Harvey Freedenberg, a lawyer in Harrisburg, Pa. — we met through a mutual interest in writing and golf — emailed me this note.
“When I was starting to get interested in golf, around 1965, I picked up his book My Game and Yours at the school library. That was one of my entry points into the game, especially because of the infectious communication for golf he communicated.”
Neal Mednick, another friend chimed in when he heard about Palmer’s death.
“He was the only golfer I know — Tiger may be a slight exception — who appealed to people who didn’t play golf. To me, he ranked with Muhammad Ali because of how profoundly alone one is in the ring and on the golf course, and the astounding courage it takes to be what he was. He made golf what it is today. A wonderful man.”
Palmer generated a magnetic orbit around him, and he made people feel good. I would think most of us would like an epitaph that reads, “He made people feel good.”
But to deserve that, one has to live that way. Arnold Palmer did.