Golf’s King of Cool: Arnold Palmer Had No Equal

December 7, 2016

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.

As a nickname, “The King” stuck, but it didn’t fit. A king considers himself above his subjects; Arnold Palmer was Everyman, humble, one of the guys. In commercials, he sat on a tractor, not a throne.

With apologies to Steve McQueen, a better moniker would have been “The King of Cool.”

Funny thing, the idea of “cool.” It’s tricky to define, but we know it when we see it. And no one had much doubt when Arnold Palmer came around. Consider the reaction of the late CBS golf executive producer Frank Chirkinian after catching his first glimpse of Palmer. It was April 1959. Chirkinian was working the Masters broadcast when the screen before him filled with footage of a figure who seemed more gunslinger than golfer.

MORE: Buy Sports Illustrated’s Arnold Palmer Commemorative

“It’s this player coming over the brow of the hill of the 15th to play his second shot,” Chirkinian said. “He studies his shot, flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green…I [thought], “Wow, who is this guy?””

It was the beginning of the television age, and golf had found its action hero.

Other stars had shined before him, but Arnie was a constellation of his own—not a genteel country-club type, like Walter Hagen, or a buttoned-up blue-blood, like Bobby Jones, or a dead-eyed range rat, like Ben Hogan. (Although he enjoyed his cocktails, made cardigans look macho and banged as many practice balls as Hogan ever did.)

What set Palmer apart was hard for some to convey, but everyone saw it. “The camera is all-revealing,” Chirkinian noted. “It either loves you or it hates you, and it loved Arnold.”

Fans loved him even more. Palmer hid nothing. He rarely donned a hat. Eye contact was a hallmark. And he wore his emotions on his sleeves, which were often rolled up to expose his Popeye forearms. All slashing swing and swagger, he was dashing, daring, with a knack for self-destruction. Invincible one moment, vulnerable the next, he was folkloric but flawed. Überman and Everyman.

Both on and off the golf course, he was magnetic. In cinematic terms, Palmer was Steve McQueen–cool and Jimmy Stewart–accessible. When he wasn’t shaking hands, he was swinging with abandon, the author of unscripted dramas that hurtled toward triumph (Cherry Hills, 1960) or tragedy (Olympic Club, “66). With so many plot twists, Arnie kept his audience enthralled. No one marched to victory more thrillingly. Even when he crashed and burned, he made it clear that it was worth the risk.

Once asked why he resisted laying up on the par 5s on Augusta’s back nine, he replied, “Do you know how many times I’ve finished second in the Masters?” His interviewer didn’t. “Neither do I,” Palmer said.

With his force of personality and fearless playing style, Palmer helped remake the game for popular consumption, stripping a tweedy sport of its patrician reserve. He was also a product of a place and time. In his rise from humble roots to icon status, he embodied the can-do optimism of post-war America. Not unlike the country, he was brash, vibrating with promise, a giant awakening to his power.

One of Palmer’s gifts, it has been said, was that he made us feel better about ourselves. What he really did was make us feel better about our prospects. He conveyed the idea that anything was possible. Watching Arnie, we believed that we could drive the green, and if we missed, well, hell, at least we gave it a rip, took a chance, lived a little. And what’s cooler than that?