Thanks for everything, King
Unlike most sporting icons, it wasn’t primarily about the trophies he won; nor the technical mastery of his sport; nor the records he set.
With Arnold Palmer, it was about the connection he made with, seemingly, every person he met. Not to mention the millions he didn’t, watching on from a distance, who saw something in this proud Pennsylvanian son of the working class that made them want to align themselves with him.
Palmer did not just transcend golf. He went beyond sport. In that sense, and in terms of charisma, there are certainly parallels between him and Seve Ballesteros, who died in 2011.
Both men carried the galleries around with them, an electricity in their very presence.
But while Seve was an enemy of the establishment, forever railing against a perceived injustice, detecting slights where none existed, Palmer had few enemies.
Rather, he exuded charm. He didn’t seem to have bad days. And even as the multi-millionaire, private-jet-owning business mogul he became as long ago as the 1970s, he remained an everyman, a hero to the masses.
It is now over 40 years since Palmer last won a tournament yet he has never been anywhere else but the forefront of the game.
The transition from swashbuckler to the game’s spiritual grandfather was seamless. One minute the sporting world was watching, transfixed, as he swished, thrashed and threshed his way around Augusta and our great links – the Masters and Open accounted for six of his seven Major wins – and the next he had become the voice that gently dispensed wisdom and good grace. Somehow, he was simultaneously on high and yet also at our sides.
The great players of the day all went to see him and take counsel – from Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy.
As if all that were not enough, we Brits also have Palmer to thank for making the Open Championship the tournament it is today. He took the trouble to cross the Atlantic each summer at a time when it was easier not to bother. He famously lifted the Claret Jug at Birkdale in 1961 and again at Troon the following year. In doing so, he brought with him a generation of Americans.
In no small part this helped to make the Open the world-class event we are so fortunate to have on our doorstep each summer. It seems that the true greats of the game take links golf and specifically Scotland to their soul. I am thinking here of that select group of golfers known by their first-name alone: Bobby, Peter, Jack, Tom, Seve, Tiger…and Arnold.
His Open Championship career spanned from 1960 to 1995, bookended by visits to St Andrews. The town that remained dear to him in a way that only true golfers can understand.
Back in the United States, Palmer’s spiritual home always remained in Latrobe, the Pennsylvania town in which he was born. It was here that his father served as the club professional.
But in later life he spent most of his time, especially in the winter months, at Bay Hill, the club he owned in Orlando. Each year Bay Hill continues to host his tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Until recently, each day would begin with a short walk across to the clubhouse for breakfast. Here he would freely mix with members, visitors and guests at the on-site Lodge.
Breakfast with Arnold Palmer
I know this because I have stayed there myself and was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours in his company one Saturday morning in January, 2013.
Like almost everyone else, I have my own special Arnold story. No Arnold Palmer eulogy would be complete without one.
Having reversed the roles in my own mind, I began to understand how preposterous this scenario was. I imagined, in my 80s, having my breakfast at the golf club infiltrated by someone less than half my age asking a series of questions about events 50 years and more ago.
And yet, like so many others who briefly came into contact with Palmer over the 87 years of his life, I was treated with courtesy, warmth, patience and genuine interest.
In my career as a golf journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to encounter and spend time with many of the greats of the game. I’ve observed their conduct, and seen how they behave.
Granted, given I was speaking to a multiple-major-winning octogenarian, it was inevitably a respectful and somewhat nostalgic interview.
This, however, was more than that. It was tending towards the reverential, which was unprofessional.
If I’m honest, spending time with Palmer felt different to any interview I have done before or since. That made it difficult to treat, both during and afterwards.
The problem was that I had crossed the line between journalist and fan. The interview should have felt like business but he made it seem like we were just having a chat.
And that was what Palmer did to so many of us.
Not only could he “talk with crowds and keep your virtue, Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch”, to quote Rudyard Kipling, he was the King.