All hail The King: The 7 best things about Arnold Palmer, ranked
Every week (pretty much) GOLF senior writer Michael Bamberger identifies — and ranks — the absolute, undeniably, very best* things in golf right now. This week, he’s revisiting one of his golfing heroes, the late Arnold Palmer, who would have turned 90 on Sept. 10. (*or at least mildly interesting)
Arnold told stories well. He told them with candor and humor, with snippets of dialogue, and he was seldom the hero of his own tales. I’m thinking now of one he liked to tell about driving the Tour with his bride, Winnie, in the late 1950s. They were driving behind a car that carried several players, including Al Besselink. Here’s Arnold, to tell the rest: “Winnie and I are driving from Baton Rouge to Pensacola. We’re watching the car in front of us. All of a sudden sparks are coming out of the back of that car. I’m watching. And I thought, I’m seeing something I don’t understand. I pulled up closer to them and there’s Besselink hanging out of the back door of the car, grinding a wedge on the highway.”
They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, anyway you want to look at it.
It’s likely that no American athlete signed more autographs than Arnold Palmer. It’s also possible that no American athlete signed more personal letters. He sent out several a week, at a minimum, just to professional golfers on various tours, congratulating them on their wins. It helped him keep current in the game, it helped him generate interest in his annual tournament at Bay Hill and it helped him hand-down the values of the game he held dear. After Rory McIlroy won the U.S. Open in 2011, Arnold wrote a letter to him that included this sage advice: “Just continue to be yourself.” That’s what worked so well for Arnold.
Speaking of letters: Before the 2002 Masters, Hootie Johnson, as the tournament chairman, sent out a letter to three old-time winners, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer and Billy Casper, telling them that their playing days had come to an end. Arnold shot a first-round 79 that year and told reporters that the Friday round would be his last at Augusta. Asked why, he said, “I don’t want to get a letter.” Everybody laughed, but I think Arnold was also being literal. He didn’t get a letter and played two more, for an even 50 Masters, four of which he won.
On Friday, June 17, 1994, Arnold played his final round of golf in a U.S. Open. This was at Oakmont, not even an hour from his lifelong home in Latrobe. The day was a sweltering one. After an emotional post-round press conference, with a towel around his neck, Arnold retired to the men’s locker room.
A small group of reporters gathered around him there and one mentioned something about O.J. Simpson. Arnold heard O.J. mentioned and launched into a story about Arnold and O.J. running through an airport together, shooting a Hertz TV spot. Somebody explained that O.J. was wanted by the Los Angeles police, in connection to the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman, and that he was on a suicide watch. Arnold quickly processed the severity of the situation and, as I remember it, said, “Well, I never knew him that well.”
I once asked Arnold what it was like for him, when people ordered Arnold Palmers in front of him. “It’s a little embarrassing,” he said.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of conjecture about how Arnold got the nickname “The King,” and we’ll leave it at that for now. He once told me that that name embarrassed him, too, though I thought I detected a wink. (He liked it fine.) In any event, as the Greatest Generation golfers often say, good thing they played before cellphones and tweeting, or you’d be reading something else now.
Jack and Arnold had an interesting relationship. Jack Nicklaus has an understanding of the human body that suggests four years in medical school. Talking to him is like talking to a doctor. When Arnold was ill and getting near his end, it was clear that Jack knew more about Arnold’s condition than Arnold did. What Arnold understood was human beings. It’s hard to imagine a world-class athlete who had a more developed sense of empathy than Arnold.
Jack tells a story about playing with Arnold in 1962, at the Phoenix Open. This is from Jack: “He put his arm around my shoulder and we walked to the 18th tee. And Arnold said, ‘Come on, you can finish second here. You can birdie this hole. Just relax.’ It was a pretty nice thing to do. I birdied the hole and I finished second. Arnold won by 12. He just nipped me, 269 to 281.” Arnold, by the way, made $5,300, to Jack’s $2,300. Professional golf is about money and always has been. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the pro game is at its best when the people in it actually care about one another and the people for whom they are playing. That was Arnold. His starting point was this: I am not bigger than the game.
The last time I saw Arnold in a one-on-one setting was in the fall of 2014, in his office in Latrobe. His health was OK, not great. I asked if he was satisfied with his life and I am certain his answer was from the heart: “Nooooooooo!” He was 84. He wanted to fly his plane again, but that wasn’t going to happen. He wanted to contended at the Masters again, but that wasn’t going to happen. He wanted to fall in love again — with the game, with a pretty girl, with the sui generis life he had invented for himself — but none of those things were going to happen, either. So, Nooooooooo! Arnold wasn’t trying to fool anybody about anything, including himself. Like he told Rory, Be yourself.
Michael Bamberger may be reached at [email protected]