Arnold Palmer was one of those “fringe” legends in sports, like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, Rod Laver and Tony Trabert, Eddie Arcaro and A.J. Foyt, men who had ascended the highest peaks of their sport, but doing so in a world that leaned toward baseball, football and basketball to find their idols.
CINCINNATI — We were somewhere south of Montgomery on I-65 when the news came on the radio. Arnold Palmer had died.
I slumped in my seat. “Damn,” I said.
“What? What’s wrong,” my wife said.
“Wait. Listen,” I said, turning up the volume. I wanted details.
“Arnold Palmer? The golfer?”
“Yeah, yeah. I wanna hear this.”
For 35 years, she has been forced to live on the fringe of sports. My vocation dictated some involvement and the birth of two sons—gifted in games at a young age—pushed her further into a world of sports pages, sports broadcasts, mounds of equipment, dirty socks, dirty jocks, knee braces, ankle braces and ultimately more useless knowledge than she would ever have chosen on her own.
During a holiday dinner and given a sympathetic audience of sisters and her mother, she once said: “Name another woman you know, who can open her antique China cabinet and find a baseball bat or a tennis racquet. I wash things – I don’t even know what they are.”
Through it all she remains a good sport.
“What happened?” she said. “You knew Palmer?”
“Shhhsh. Listen,” I said.
The announcer was short on details. “Arnold Palmer,” he said, “died of natural causes. He was 87 years old. The world loses one of the greatest golfers of all time.”
That was it. That’s all he said, eager to get on to the latest news on the Alabama football team and the upcoming game with Kentucky, as if there was any doubt about the outcome of that contest.
I cursed the limits of the report on Palmer and switched to something on Sirius.
“You knew Palmer,” my wife asked. “Tell me.”
“I didn’t know him,” I said. “I met him once. Spent a day trying to get an interview with him in Lexington. Finally got a few words, enough for a column. But it was nothing like I expected.”
“You were impressed, I take it,” she said.
“That’s not even the word for it. There were few like Palmer. Nothing even close today. That’s the worst part, the very worst part.”
Over the next 100 hundred miles of straight slab headed for the Florida border, I told her the story of meeting Palmer at a charity golf event at Griffin Gate, a course on the fringe of Lexington, Kentucky.
Palmer was scheduled to play a few holes and meet with his fans. My editor at the Cincinnati Post thought I would have a good shot at getting a one-on-one with Palmer, as he put it, “the greatest golfer that ever lived.”
To that point in my career (it was probably 1980 or ’81), Palmer was one of those “fringe” legends in sports, like Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, Rod Laver and Tony Trabert, Eddie Arcaro and A.J. Foyt, men who had ascended the highest peaks of their sport, but doing so in a world that didn’t touch the hearts of millions of mainstream fans, those who leaned toward baseball, football and basketball to find their idols.
In the two or three days leading up to the interview I read everything I could find on Palmer. But what I learned—four-time Masters champion, winner of the US Open in 1960, British Open Champ in 1961 and 1962, 62 tour wins—none of that touched the scene that greeted me at Griffin Gate in Lexington. I arrived two hours before Palmer was scheduled to tee off, yet there was hardly a spot to be had in the parking lot.
The hotel lobby was filled with people, spilling out of every bar, restaurant and alcove throughout the spacious lobby and there was no middle ground about this crowd. There were retirees and grade school kids, middle-aged business folk and men and women who looked as though they had walked right off the job.
There was every kind of attire imaginable from fur and silk to sweatshirts and blue jeans. There were beer drinkers and members of the martini crowd. In a corner shielded by ferns, a pair of priests sipped on whiskeys talking about Palmer.
“Such a gentleman,” one said.
“A man of the people,” the other offered. “A swing right off a public course, but my what results.”
The most remarkable thing about the crowd was the women, their sheer number and their look. They seemed to make-up at least half the crowd, which stretched from the lobby, across the pool deck and on out toward the tee box where Palmer would ultimately appear.
The women represented every age group and occupation, all—in one fashion or another—well turned out, as if they were headed for an appointment of some importance. They chatted and tittered and as Arnold’s arrival time came near, they were at the lead of the slow progression toward the golf course.
I was witnessing one regiment of “Arnie’s Army”, the legions that followed and revered this man of humble beginnings and international acclaim.
Once before had I witnessed such allegiance. It was in the fall of 1978 when Muhammad Ali returned to Louisville, Kentucky, after defeating Leon Spinks and regaining the heavyweight title for the third time. That night at the Fairgrounds, it seemed as if the state’s entire population turned out to see their native son, chanting “Ali”—crowding, ever closer to get a better look at the man.
Ten minutes before Palmer was to meet his public, a voice on a loudspeaker urged all in attendance to make their way to the course. “Mr. Palmer will tee-off in a matter of minutes,” he said, a smile hanging on his every word.
Prestige is not often accompanied by punctuality, but precisely at 1 P.M., sliding glass doors were opened and Arnold Palmer appeared. The applause, the cheers, the whistles fell like a gentle avalanche.
He was deeply tanned with an easy smile. He raised an arm high above his head like a general leading a charge. With that, he began his way through the throng, and there—for all to see—was his true gift, far greater than his ability to put red numbers on the scorecard.
As he made his way through the crowd, he stopped here and there talking and shaking hands. His smile was genuine, his eyes warm and unwavering.
I remember thinking about how my father had once described an old Army buddy. “He looks like a man with no worries, no debt, no enemies. He could laugh at the devil.”
That was Palmer. But there was something else.
Somehow, he could make each person in the crowd feel as though he were speaking directly to them, that he cared about them—that they mattered.
I told my wife about following Palmer that day, trying to get enough time with the man for a story and how he politely deferred to his fans, saying, “I’m sorry. This day is for them. I hope you understand.”
That, of course, was the story. Here was a man who fully and truthfully appreciated his fans and what they had given him, and a man who went out of his way to show that appreciation.
“A unique man,” my wife said.
“Yeah,” I said. “They don’t make ’em like Arnold Palmer any more. And now, he’s gone. Damn.”