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Arnold Palmer: A Natural Nobleman

Michael Bamberger Remembers Arnold Palmer
The Sports Illustrated writer remembers the time he spent with Arnold Palmer and his favorite memories of the legendary golfer over the years.

The most beautiful revelation, in the wake of Arnold Palmer’s death on Sunday at 87, is that the man asked for his ashes to be spread at Latrobe Country Club, where he learned the game, drove the tractor, came of age and, essentially, lived and died.

The truest thing you could say about Arnold is that he never forgot where he came from, a little town off the Lincoln Highway in western Pennsylvania. He was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but who would have known? The plane was a showpiece and that was about it. Arnold was perplexed by how today’s stars live in money-eating mansions. He could not relate. He was a child of the Depression and cautious in all things financial. He put up his own money now and again but his main goal was to get paid up front, and scores of companies were willing to do it. His father was a golf pro and Arnold was a pro golfer. That’s how he thought of himself.

He could not have been more generous to me, and there are thousands of us who would say the same. He liked to do his interviews in the morning, typically at Bay Hill or in Latrobe. Sometimes it took him a while to get in gear. He’d drink black coffee at his desk, talk to the dog, call out to his ever-faithful secretaries, look at some correspondence, and when he was good and ready he’d turn his attention to his visitor.

In different moods, he’d give different answers. He was perfectly capable of giving boilerplate answers to questions he’d been asked a million times, but if you stayed with him, if you just sat there and didn’t interrupt him or try to fill in his long pauses, he was capable of incredible insights. He liked to say that he was dumb as a rock, but in his own way he was profoundly intelligent. What that phrase “emotional IQ” actually means I don’t know, but his had to be off the charts. He made people feel good. That’s why he got the big bucks, and that’s why he had so many enduring relationships. But he didn’t try to be a person who made people feel good. It’s just who he was.

He loved team golf—Ryder Cup golf in his day, collegiate team competitions, the Arnold Palmer Cup, even the Presidents Cup. Davis Love III played for Arnold on the 1996 Presidents Cup team. Arnold was talking to the team about player comportment or something along those lines and he looked at Davis and said, “Davis knows what I’m talking about. His father was a golf pro just like mine was.” In other words, golf was a place to practice class. Arnold was loaded with it.

I’ve told this before so forgive me but once, a few years ago, I was having lunch with Arnold at Bay Hill. Our server was a new employee whose sexual identity was not immediately apparent. Arnold, a man of his generation in every way, was just his warm, welcoming self to his new employee, differences be damned. Of course that’s how people should be, but that isn’t always how they are.

Golf these days for most of us is by appointment. We get a golf game, or a golf trip, on the calendar and go hog wild! It wasn’t like that for Arnold. He played and hit balls every day. The golf course was his home, his office and, we’re finding out now, his final resting place.

A good guess is that Latrobe won’t get all his ashes, that some will be thrown to the wind at Augusta National, maybe in the swirling winds around the 12th tee. He loved Augusta for more reasons than he could count, but I’ll cite a few here: He made a good and much-needed paycheck there in April 1955. He hung out with Ike there. He forced Ben Hogan, who had not much use for Arnold, to pay attention to him there. He became a dues-paying member there. Like a lot of working-class kids, he had a dream about being an accepted member of upper-class society, and he liked the stamp of approval that came with his member’s coat.

He really did have a thing about hats being worn in clubhouses—so déclassé—and, even though he was loose and fun, he was a stickler for propriety. Had he been alive on Ryder Cup Monday, his grillroom lunchtime conversation would have been about Bubba Watson. He would have had a real insight into whether Love made the right move, taking Ryan Moore, and not Bubba Watson, as the last person on his Ryder Cup team. If there were six people at lunch, and there often were, he’d listen to each person’s view and consider it. He didn’t have to do all the talking. He didn’t want to do all the talking. Then he’d go at the end. He’d have the last word and why wouldn’t he?

He was Arnold Palmer.

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