Arnold Palmer cranked out the hits year after year

Golfing greats Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are shown on the course of Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Ga., on Wednesday, April 4, 1973. Both are hoping for victory in the first of four major golf championships. Presently, the two are tied with four Masters victories each. (AP Photo)

Arnold Palmer cranked out the hits year after year

PGA Tour

Arnold Palmer cranked out the hits year after year

ORLANDO, Fla. – My wife and I went to see Bruce Springsteen in concert earlier this year, driving a few hours south to Sunrise, Fla. “The Boss” is 67 now, but his performances today are no different than they were in, say, the late ’70s, when I was a teen attending one of his shows at the old Boston Garden.

Springsteen was drenched in sweat, and giving every song, every note, everything he had, maybe for that one person in the audience who might never have seen him perform before. His music doesn’t flow from his old Fender guitar, or that coarse, gravelly voice, but somewhere much deeper. It rises from his soul. In doing that, he’s true to himself and to his audience, and he never disappoints. On that night in Sunrise, three hours in, beyond the inevitable thoughts of how many years now lie under the bridge, I can remember watching Springsteen and thinking to myself, Who can do something for so many years, yet still love his craft every bit as much as when he started?

And an internal light went off, and as the house rocked, I smiled.

Arnold Palmer, that’s who.

Sure, he piled up titles (62 on the PGA Tour), and major championships (seven), was a force behind the growth of the PGA Tour Champions, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and was a great all-around player. That stuff seems almost peripheral. With Palmer, who died Sunday at age 87, that never was the point. No man ever has loved the game more than Arnold Palmer, and no golfer ever punched the clock each day, rising early even into his mid-80s as if it were his singular job to go out into the world and represent his sport. He did that better than anyone.

In March, at the tournament that carries his name – the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill – Palmer hadn’t hit a single golf ball in nearly a year, yet when he climbed into his cart, it had two bags filled with clubs strapped in. For all he did in his life – playing golf and dining with U.S. presidents, making cameos in motion pictures, running with celebrities – whenever the sun began to dip below the trees, there always were nine more holes to play.

“I didn’t get to playing professional golf until I was 25 years old,” Palmer once said, “and I always said if I could make it work, I would play as long as I could walk. And that’s kind of my way of doing it. Because I enjoy it.”

Enjoy it? That’s like saying Bach enjoyed composing, that Hemingway enjoyed writing, that Churchill enjoyed leading, and, well, like saying that Springsteen enjoys music. No, Palmer did far more than enjoy golf. He loved it with every fiber, and the love came back to him tenfold from his adoring galleries, those fans around the world whom he’d look directly in the eye, the ones who thrust pictures and flags and hats across gallery ropes at him. They knew he’d stay until he’d signed every one. And he signed each item perfectly, mind you.

Many a pro today, young and old, has received a lecture from the King about making one’s signature legible, a decades-long pet peeve he carried.

“I don’t know where a player comes off – a young player, particularly – that is being asked to give an autograph and he scribbles something down there that you can’t read,” Palmer said. “Well, who in the hell knows what it is? Why take the time to do it?”

Golf Channel tackled a three-hour documentary (“Arnie”) on Palmer’s life a year ago, and within it, the most poignant line delivered by host Tom Selleck was the opener: How do you tell the story of a life that’s larger than life?

How do you? How does one begin to write about Arnold Daniel Palmer and the impact he had on all who love golf? There is not enough ink to do his story justice. Every golfer has an Arnie story. In the eternal debate of “Who’s best?” in our game, you’ll hear Jones and Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods. But there is no debating the most impactful golfer. It’s Palmer, 10 and 8.

His career timing was impeccable. He started winning green jackets at Augusta just as television was trying to stand on its wobbly legs, and the two formed a powerful pair. President Dwight D. Eisenhower had asked Augusta National Golf Club chairman Clifford Roberts if he might arrange a game with the winner of the Masters in 1958, and lo and behold, that champion would be Palmer. Again, perfect timing. He and Ike became lifelong friends.

Palmer could dine in fancy five-star restaurants with famous people, but he never lost sight of who he was, and deep down, he always was the blue-collar kid from Latrobe, Pa., not really sure which fork to use. He knew what it was like to rise at dawn and not get home until darkness after an honest day of hard labor. He was good-looking and strong, his firm handshake making one feel as if he’d just pulled his hand from a vice. And always, there was the direct eye contact that connected him with people.

To meet Arnold Palmer was, well, to really meet Arnold Palmer.

A small detail to some, but the autographs became personal to him. He knew what it meant to be on the other side of one, and signing, which he did for hours in his office even into his final days, was a privilege, not an obligatory chore.

“I’m looking at you and talking, and you’re asking for an autograph. That’s the way it’s done,” Palmer once said, “and that makes the relationship closer.”

Ah, the relationships. He played bridge and dined with members of the media at the British Open, loved the gang who played in the mid-day Shootout at Bay Hill and got to personally know familiar faces who turned out year after year in the various cities in which he played. At Augusta, he even had his own army; people still were enlisting as the man entered his 80s.

Our revered athletes in other sports hang it up and quietly fade away. How often does one see Willie Mays or Bart Starr? But even as his playing days waned, Palmer still showed up. At the Masters in April, he was unable to drive a ball off the opening tee as an honorary starter, but he did show up to watch. As he settled into a white lattice chair to watch pals Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus tee off, he looked across the ropes to the patrons standing five-deep, put his thumb in the air, smiled and said, “Hi, you guys.”

This writer, first introduced to Palmer at Bay Hill in the 1980s, was privileged to enjoy a soothing Ketel One and tonic with Palmer downstairs in the bar at his beloved Latrobe Country Club in 2013, on the occasion of his 84th birthday. Latrobe, about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, is where Palmer first learned the game, and where he built those Popeye forearms of his by pushing a mower – one without a motor, he’d add – and having to stand up to try to steer a tractor. Young Arnie was about 6 when he’d be paid 5 cents by driving a golf ball across the drainage ditch at Latrobe’s old No. 5 for a member named Mrs. Fritz.

“I made a nickel,” Palmer said, smiling, “and man, I was there every time she was.”

Palmer was at Latrobe that day as part of a fundraiser for the two hospitals he helped to build in Orlando, one that carries his name, and one that memorializes his first wife, Winnie. When he would visit the hospitals, viewing first-hand the difference that the high quality of care was making in people’s lives, it filled him with as much pride as winning any major championship. Trophies tarnish, but a man’s legacy lives on.

That day at Latrobe three years ago, Palmer shared a story about his dad, Deacon, the pro and superintendent at the club, who years earlier had been offered a similar position up the road at storied Oakmont. Young Arnold was quite familiar with Oakmont (he first played there at age 12), and when he heard this, his mind started racing, and he hardly could restrain his emotions.

“I couldn’t talk,” said Arnold, who was told the news by his dad while driving a tractor. “Finally I said, ‘Pap, you know how excited I am.’ ”

But Deke Palmer, the man who had placed Arnold’s hands on a club and told him never to tinker with his grip, would turn down the offer, much to his son’s surprise and initial disappointment. Later in life, it sunk in to Arnold that the decision not to leave Latrobe might have been the best move his dad ever made.

Said Palmer, “He told me, ‘Arn, I’m staying at Latrobe.’ My chest dropped. He said, ‘We’re going to make it happen here.’ He said, ‘I can’t drink any more, I can’t eat any more, and I can’t love my business any more, so I’m staying right where we’re at.’ He never went, and it’s probably the best move he ever made. We all stayed here.”

Palmer would buy the club in 1971. He’d later buy Bay Hill Club, too, where he first visited to play an exhibition in the mid-1960s, when Orlando was a sleepy central Florida town of citrus groves and yet to be introduced to the famous Mouse. These would be Palmer’s home camps for the summer and winter, and on that crisp autumn day at Latrobe, as he looked out the window, everything appeared to be just right.

“On a day like today,” he said, “it’s perfect.”

Arnold Palmer wasn’t perfect. But in our game, he was as good as it ever will get. As chairman of Augusta National and the Masters, Billy Payne had the honor of getting to know Palmer as a member, and not solely as a four-time Masters champion. The first year that he was to guide Palmer to the tee as honorary starter, Payne was advised to lead the procession from the back door of the stately clubhouse, walking in front of Palmer across the manicured grass under the giant oak tree, and through an alleyway of patrons to the opening tee.

“No, no, no,” Payne responded. “I wanted to watch them (the patrons) react to him first.” So Payne walked directly behind Palmer.

“And man,” he said, gushing, “it’s awesome. I’m right there, and seeing the way that the people genuinely love him, it’s extraordinary. I get to repeat that every year.”

No more. The King is gone, and golf weeps. To every pro who earns a paycheck, every youngster who dares to rip a shot across a ditch, and more importantly, to every golfer who will stand amid the trees ready to attempt the escape shot of his dreams, Arnold Palmer will live on forever. He meant so much to this game, and his void never will be filled.

Thanks, Mr. Palmer. For everything you did. Long live the King.

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