One of Arnold Palmer’s longtime friends once said that something just happened when he walked into the room, that Palmer was the Paul Newman of golf. Actually, Palmer reached a higher realm than that. He was American royalty. People treated him that way and gave him a title to boot.
He was part of life in the U.S. and always will be, long after his death Sunday at the age of 87. Long live The King.
Palmer carried that nickname cheerfully and graciously for decades, probably because he realized the irony of it. He was revered largely because he was anything but an aristocratic figure. His popularity and success as a spokesman for many products and companies stemmed from the fact he was so down to earth. Palmer always made eye contact with his legions of followers, who became known as Arnie’s Army. Worldwide fame never eroded the character that was burnished when the greenskeeper’s son drove a tractor and cut greens in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
No one, not even Tiger Woods, transformed golf the way Arnold Palmer did. Something happened when he walked into the room and onto the stage of public opinion. He turned a boutique sport into an attraction for the masses. His rugged good looks and go-for-broke style of play were a perfect match for the blossoming television age. It has been said that Palmer was responsible for selling countless color TV sets because people did not want to watch him in black and white.
If his dad, Deacon Palmer, had a green thumb for growing grass, the son had a similar touch with most of the events and enterprises that he touched. Arnold was the reason many of us took up golf in the first place. The Masters would not be the spectacle it is today if not for Palmer and fellow members of the legendary Big Three, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
The British Open was mostly a distant curiosity for Americans before Palmer began making it part of his annual schedule. Woods and other top pros have made it a point to appear annually at the tournament Palmer organized at his Bay Hill Club in Orlando, a tour stop that now is called the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
He was among the founders of Golf Channel, which seemed an oddly ambitious project but has become a central force in the game. Nicklaus has said that Palmer was the cornerstone for the PGA Tour Champions because he enthusiastically joined it when he turned 50. Others have said that many lives were saved because men chose to undergo prostate cancer screening after Palmer was diagnosed with the disease.
Was he a saint or did he live like a monk? Word from tour veterans is a definitive no. Yet he was more popular than ever in his 70s and 80s, despite not having won a major championship after 1964 or a PGA Tour event after 1973. He was a trusted and effective pitchman for Pennzoil and many other products. No one goes to a snack bar and orders a drink that is half iced tea and half lemonade. All they have to do is ask for an Arnold Palmer.
It pained Palmer more than we can imagine when age and injuries prevented him from hitting balls. Nicklaus said a few years ago that nobody loves playing golf more than Arnold Palmer. He took great delight in hitting a shot as one of the three ceremonial starters at the Masters.
There were tears on the tee this past April when Palmer just wasn’t able to swing the club along with Nicklaus and Player. He still made an appearance, smiling and waving. Afterward, Player said, “I think we can go to our graves knowing that we contributed to society, plus golf.”
The King made his contributions and made everything seem like a whole lot more fun. Long may he live.