Golf lingers on goodbye, like the last guest at the front door. American golf’s first big three all went deep. Ben Hogan died at 84, despite all the drinking and the smoking. Sam Snead, long lifelines all over his family, lived to nearly 90. Byron Nelson, a testament to clean living, was 94. Seven green jackets among them, and scores of champions dinners. Of course, there are sudden ends at young ages. Tony Lema, Payne Stewart and Davis Love Jr. died in plane crashes. But then there’s this hat trick of Hall of Famers with better luck: Gene Sarazen was 97, Paul Runyan was 93, Charlie Sifford was 92.
Arnold Palmer, the oldest of today’s trademarked Big Three, is 86 and, it so happens, an accomplished pilot. When he let his license lapse five years ago, it was his first serious concession to age. All that freedom, gone. It broke his heart. He had some close calls in the air but always made it to terra firma without getting anybody killed. The King.
The nickname was bestowed upon him in forgotten locker rooms with whirring fans and open windows, and we’ll leave it to Marco Rubio and Donald Trump to explain how Palmer actually earned the moniker. He became the icon he is by this simple formula: Live large on a big stage, but never forget where you came from. Oh, and this keeper: Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Arnold was—Arnold is—rich and charismatic, and everything this world offers was available to him. But he had the gift of simplicity, and he knew who he was: a working-class kid from Latrobe, Pa., who happened to be good at golf. “Dumb as a rock,” he once said. Not likely.
He is golf’s one certified legend, an American original, almost at the level of Bing Crosby, Joe DiMaggio and Jimmy Stewart. The molds that made those men are broken. You need some help from the press to become a mythic hero, and Arnold got it. But what Arnold had in spades was manly grace and a common touch. Once, in the parking lot of the Latrobe Country Club, I was resting my right arm on the ledge of an open window of Arnold’s big SUV as he sat behind the wheel. For goodbye, he placed his right hand in the middle of my forearm. The spot is still warm.
Arnold hit his first raw Masters tee shot—driver!—on April 7, 1955, and his final stroke on April 9, 2004, a short putt for bogey. In between he played 11,178 shots, won four coats and never missed a year. In 2005 and ’06, he played in the par-3 tournament. From 2007 through ’15, he was an honorary starter. This will be the first Masters since 1954 in which he will not hit any sort of meaningful shot. Another step toward the front door. Like the man sang, That’s life.
Palmer has spent a year of his life at Augusta National, and you can tell he has loved every minute of it. On Tuesday night of Masters week Palmer will be at the dinner for past champions, Jordan Spieth, 22, presiding. Others swaddled in green that night will include Adam Scott, 35, Phil Mickelson, 45, Fred Couples, 56, Tom Watson, 66, Raymond Floyd, 73, Bob Goalby, 87, and Doug Ford, 93. No sport gives a kid more of a chance to learn from his elders, and vice versa. For years Arnold sat at that dinner with Bobby Jones. If Jordan, a curious man-child, asks Arnold what Jones was really like, he’ll get a firsthand answer. A hundred years of golf, right there.
A day and a half later, on Thursday morning, Palmer will gather on the 1st tee with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, and he’ll watch them, drivers in hand, start the 80th Masters, and Arnold’s 61st. The Big Three, once more with feeling. Catch ’em while you can.
A couple of years ago, I asked Arnold if he was satisfied with his life.
Of course not. He wanted what we want: for the King to play forever.