Cleat Geeks

Remembering Arnold Palmer, the King of golf

When trying to write about the life and impact of a man like Arnold Palmer, it’s hard to even know where to start.

For Palmer’s greatness in his 87 years of life transcended not just golf or even sports, but humanity itself. He played his sport with passion, he lived his life with compassion, and he had an impact on countless thousands, even millions of people, many of whom he never actually arniebwmet.

Palmer died Sunday of complications to a heart condition. He was actually in the hospital being prepared for a heart procedure that was to have taken place Monday.

Many close to Palmer have feared this day was coming soon. He was unable for the first time to hit a ceremonial first tee shot at The Masters this spring, although he did attend the tournament and its annual Champions Dinner. He also had been limited a month earlier in appearances at his Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida.

Jack Nicklaus, Palmer’s greatest rival and golf’s greatest champion, last spoke to Palmer about two weeks ago.

“Arnold transcended the game of golf,” Nicklaus said Sunday evening. “He was more than a golfer or even great golfer. He was an icon. He was a legend. Arnold was someone who was a pioneer in his sport. He took the game from one level to a higher level, virtually by himself.

palmer_player_nick“Along the way, he had millions of adoring fans — Barbara and I among them. We were great competitors, who loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed.

“He was the king of our sport and always will be.”

Palmer was a great player, winning seven major championships and 62 total PGA Tour events. But his legacy was about so much more than what he did in his golfing record.

He marketed himself like no other. He saw golf as so much bigger than it was, not just as a country club sport but something for the common man and woman, too. He embraced the fans. He was great in relationships with sponsors, helping to grow prize money and opportunity for players.

And he brought a level of “cool” to golf that Tiger Woods would bring to this generation. He was one of the most charming and popular figures in all of sports. And he had an impact that went honestly even beyond his stellar record of play.

“Jack won majors for 25 years; I won them for 20; Arnold won them for six,” said Gary Player, part of golf’s “Big Three” along with Palmer and Nicklaus. “But because he was so charismatic, because he did so much for golf, because the people loved him so dearly, they thought he was still winning.”

“And, you know what? He was.”

Palmer was a nice guy but that doesn’t mean he was soft by any means. He could be brash, and he could be a little rough around the edges at times. He recounted a story in an article written by ESPN’s Ian O’Connor about a run-in with Ben Hogan prior to the Masters in 1958. “How in the hell did he get in the Masters?” Palmer overheard Hogan ask after a practice round.

“It pissed me off,” Palmer said.

Palmer won that week, his first major win.

arnoldpalmerawardIn another story O’Connor tells, Palmer recalled when he was a finalist for the 1960 Hickok Award for professional athlete of the year alongside Roger Maris, who the next year would set baseball’s home run record.

“What the f— are you doing here?” Maris asked Palmer, apparently referring to a golfer not being deserving of the same stage for an award for an “athlete.”

Palmer didn’t say a word to the slugger, just walked away with the trophy afterward.

I got to see Arnie play golf a handful of times in person, during major championship stops in Oklahoma. One of those years, my grandmother, the friendliest, most outgoing woman I ever knew, had gone to a practice round for the tournament toting a handful of black-and-white photos of a much younger Palmer at a tournament she and my late grandfather had attended.

As always, she made lots of friends around where she was sitting near the first tee. And they weren’t going to let him pass by without seeing what she had, so they called the King over.

He was impressed, commenting about how much younger he was then. “Would you like me to sign these?” he asked. For perhaps the only time in her life she was just kind of speechless, just a little girl again nodding and saying “mmm-hmm” to her all-time favorite player.

There are tens of thousands, maybe millions of stories just like that people are recounting this week as they remember Arnold Palmer, the golfer and the man.

golf_e_arnold_576Palmer died the same day the PGA Tour’s 2015-16 season ended in a dramatic final round of the Tour Championship. One of golf’s popular young stars, Rory McIlroy, staged a back-nine rally to force a playoff and eventually bring home the tournament win and the FedEx Cup championship.

McIlroy showed perhaps more emotion and energy than usual, particularly when he holed out for an eagle three holes from the finish. It was almost as if he channeled Palmer in those closing holes for a burst of energy to get the crowd into the sort of frenzy The King used to draw.

No doubt if Mr. Palmer could address us all one more time, he’d start by complimenting McIlroy’s great finish, one the King himself sure would have enjoyed.

We’ll miss you, Arnie. There will never be another like you.

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