Arnold Palmer, Even in Declining Health, Remains the King of Bay Hill

March 15, 2016

ORLANDO — You know Arnie.

You know how much he loves golf, how much he loves the Masters and how much he loves to compete against his buddies, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the other members of the Big Three.

So you know that if there was any way possible that he could hit a ceremonial tee shot at the Masters next month, Arnie would do it. He will attend the Masters, as usual, and he’ll probably be on the tee with The Other Two (oh, they would just love that nickname, wouldn’t they?) for the opening ceremony in Augusta bright and early Thursday morning.

Arnie will not swing a club or hit a shot. Maybe he’ll tee up a ball and stroke it with a putter, but he won’t rip a driver, hang onto the club with his strong grip or cock his head as he follows the ball in flight. That part will only be in our memories forever.

The official reason for Palmer not hitting a tee ball is that he hurt his shoulder and hasn’t been able to play golf. The real reason is, well, he’s 86. Isn’t that good enough? His health has declined, there have been a few falls—trips and slips, actually–and a few injuries and his age is catching up with him.

Sources say Arnie is looking pretty well lately. He walks on his own—a little unsteadily but on his own. That’s one reason he won’t be hitting a tee ball at Augusta. His balance isn’t 100%, and nobody wants to see him potentially stumble at Augusta. Because of his physical limitations, he reportedly hasn’t hit a golf ball in six months.

A tour player who teed it up at Bay Hill in January called me at the time to tell me how worried he was about Arnie because The King, as he is affectionately known, did not look well at the time. He looked really, really unwell, the tour player said, and some Bay Hill folks told him Arnie’s status was day-to-day. As in some days were better—or a lot worse—than others.

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Last year when he sat down for his customary meeting with golf writers on the Wednesday of Arnold Palmer Invitational week, he looked great and sounded great. He won’t be doing that session this week. He’s not at 100 percent and his hearing, which has declined in recent years, has reached a point where live question and answers are difficult for him due to audio issues.

You know Arnie. A day without golf is like a day without light. Or air. That has always been the biggest difference between Arnie and Jack. Arnie loved golf and loved the act of playing it. He pretty much played every day whether it was at Bay Hill or his beloved Latrobe Country Club back home. Jack loved golf, but he especially loved tournament golf and competition. He wasn’t home playing golf every day; he was fishing or hunting or designing courses. Jack was addicted to winning. Arnie was — and still is — addicted to golf.

Arnie’s role this week at the API will be limited, and I wouldn’t expect to see him conduct any live TV interviews. We’ll probably see him smile and wave, and we will undoubtedly see him putting his autograph on programs and visors and umbrellas and he’ll be doing it oh-so-neatly. That’s one of his things that he tells young tour pros. Make sure your autograph is legible. It’s part of being a professional.

That’s Arnie. He learned from his father, Deacon, also a club pro, that there is only one way to do things. The right way. This is part of the Palmer legacy that lives on and will continue to live on after he is gone. Jason Day is 28 and grew up in Australia long after Arnie’s playing days were over, but even he feels Palmer’s contributions to the game.

“I think the biggest thing is the impact that he’s left,” Day said Tuesday morning. “He’s impacted the generation after him which impacted the generation after them and then impacted us. So, without his innovation to the game with how he was on the golf course and how he was off the golf course, giving back to charity and how giving he was, there may not be a Greg Norman or a Nick Faldo or Seve Ballesteros. There may not be a Tiger Woods or a Phil Mickelson and there may not be a Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, myself or Rickie Fowler.

“Without influential people such as The King, there may be fewer golfers in this world today because he did have a huge impact on how people looked at golf. Let’s be honest, golf is kind of a nerdy sport, it really is. It’s not like you’re out there beating each other up on the football field or something. We’re walking around chasing a little white golf ball. That’s just how it is. Don’t get me wrong, we all enjoy it. But Arnold Palmer made golf sexy.”

From the 1960s on, Arnold Palmer was a synonym for golf. He crossed over from sports hero to American hero. People who knew nothing about golf knew Palmer’s name. He did commercials. He made television appearances on shows with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. He was the game of golf, he carried golf, he singlehandedly grew golf.

His aging is part of our culture’s passage of time. We measure ourselves against our heroes, not only by achievement and image but by longevity.

Generations come and go, quietly and quickly. Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are gone. Elvis is gone. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley are gone. Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas are gone. John Lennon and Ed Sullivan are gone. Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson were around forever, it seemed, and they’re gone. Ben Hogan is gone. Michael Jackson is gone. So is Frank Sinatra. Walter Cronkite is gone and, far too soon, Tim Russert, a promising successor. Arnie is still with us. He is 86 and he’s hanging on. He’s a gamer, always will be. But he won’t be around forever.

So if you see him this week at Bay Hill or catch a glimpse of him during NBC’s telecast, savor the moment. It isn’t time to say goodby to Arnie. Not just yet. But it’s a good time to say thank you for what he’s done for the game. He would dismiss that, of course, because he is a humble King and, oh yeah, he doesn’t like being called The King, either. He’s a man of the people, a commoner who just happened to be exceptional.

Arnie would say that as far as golf was concerned, he was just doing the right thing (the way Deacon taught him), and that his golf contributions have been fractional compared to what golf has done for him.

We would politely disagree, but we’d never win that argument with him.

You know Arnie.