Arnold Palmer: A Close Encounter Revealed What Made The King Special

December 14, 2016
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Beginning Dec. 14, is rolling out a story per day honoring the legendary Arnold Palmer, who died on Sept. 25. These pieces appeared in a special tribute issue of GOLF, which celebrated the life of one of the sport’s greats. Welcome to the 12 Days of Arnie. For more on The King, click here.

About 20 years ago, I read a GOLF magazine article entitled, “100 Things Every Golfer Must Do Before They Die.” One item on the list: Shake Arnold Palmer’s hand. I found this curious. A handshake is a handshake. What’s the big deal?

I mean, I knew of Palmer’s importance to the game, and I was aware of the emotions he stirred. At my first U.S. Open, at Oakmont in 1994, I went to his farewell press conference and couldn’t believe how all the cynical scribes were blinking back tears. Still, I didn’t really get Arnie.

And then it happened, three years later at Bay Hill. We were introduced, and his big, meaty paw enveloped mine. Palmer’s hands were rough and strong. Macho, even. His grip was crushing. It was like pressing flesh with the Marlboro Man. And the eye contact! That was one of his secrets. He never had the thousand-yard stare of so many golf stars. Rather, he seemingly found every person in the crowd and drew them in. The experience was intense. One-on-one, it was like he was looking into my soul.

MORE: Buy Sports Illustrated’s Arnold Palmer Commemorative

The funny thing about that encounter was that I had been summoned to Orlando by IMG, the sports management company that Palmer put on the map. It was the fall of 1997, and IMG had called a summit between some writers and their prized client, reigning Masters champion Tiger Woods. The purpose was to try to defrost Woods’s image and help him build relationships. On the first night, we bumped into Palmer in the lobby, and I got my handshake. He was warm, charming, and appeared to be buddies with every other writer. There was a stark contrast between his authenticity and good cheer and Woods’s corporate manner and defensiveness. During one of our awkward group chats, Tiger had said, “I don’t understand why everyone has to know everything about me.” Woods never resolved this central conflict of superstardom. He wanted the fame, the money, the adoration, but he was unwilling to give himself to the public. Palmer was always at ease with the bargain he struck. He enjoyed people, and their love for him energized him. Jack Nicklaus once perfectly summed up his old friend when he said, “No one could ever have as much fun being Arnold Palmer as Arnold has.”

The morning after my first encounter with Palmer, I was at breakfast when the King appeared again, on the adjacent practice putting green. He spent more than an hour alone, grinding. He was interrupted only once, by a man and his young son. The father was clearly nervous to meet his hero, but Palmer was gracious and spoke to him at length. At one point, Arnie bent down on one knee so he could be eye-to-eye with the boy, an instinctive act of humility and kindness. Then he returned to putting, using only one ball. Palmer was nearly 70 and still avidly chasing golf’s secrets. It was inspirational, and Tiger noticed it, too. “Nobody loves golf the way Arnie does,” he said, a tad wistfully.

Later that day, I wound up in Palmer’s office. For half an hour, we BS’d about a lot of things. (He had a twinkle when discussing Jan Stephenson in her prime.) Palmer maintained heavy eye contact and was completely engaged, yet he never stopped signing autographs, an assistant delivering and removing stacks of photos, letters and assorted memorabilia. Palmer told me that he spent tens of thousands of dollars annually on postage, sending back all the signed stuff to his fans. “I would pay a million dollars if I had to,” he said. And then he winked at me. In chats with Woods, Tiger lamented the scourge of autograph seekers. To him, they were an intrusion on his workspace.

I had come to Bay Hill to get to know Tiger, but I wound up falling for Arnie. Before leaving, I pried loose from an IMG staffer Palmer’s home address, which wasn’t far from the club. I’d always heard it was a modest house, and on my way out of town I decided to drive by. I’ve been to many pro golfers’ homes, and they tend to be monuments to excess. Woods’s $60 million compound, in Jupiter, Fla., is on a spit of land between the Indian River and Atlantic Ocean. Tiger’s house is invisible from the road, hidden behind tall walls and immaculate foliage, and every other nearby home is similarly fortress-like. I’ve never seen anyone walking their dog, no kids playing in the street or moms pushing strollers. The isolation is profound.

But Palmer’s place was tucked into a block among other nice, tidy, upper-middle-class homes. As I slowed my rental car to a crawl, I could see the garage door was open, and I couldn’t believe it—there was the King himself, tinkering with a golf club in his workshop. Palmer looked up and saw my car idling in the road. Clearly used to such lookie-loos, he smiled and waved. Feeling ridiculous, I stepped on the gas.

But I smiled all the way to the airport.