Remembering Arnie: Arnold Palmer continues to inspire 1 year after his death

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Remembering Arnie: Arnold Palmer continues to inspire 1 year after his death

Arnold Palmer

Remembering Arnie: Arnold Palmer continues to inspire 1 year after his death

(Note: Arnold Palmer died one year ago today. Golfweek is taking a look at his career and impact this week.)

ATLANTA – One year has passed since the world – not just the sports world – lost Arnold Palmer, the king of golf. In the 364 days since, we have missed his touch, his kindness, his humility, his playfulness, his compassion, and mostly, his overall bigger-than-life, thumbs-up presence.

Arnold Palmer had a special gift. He made others feel good. There’s no debate: For 87 years, this planet definitely had global warming. He was born in the Great Depression in the rolling hills of western Pennsylvania, and his name was Arnold Daniel Palmer. 

The PGA Tour has continued to extend and celebrate the King’s legacy, not that it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Last September, days after his death, one of Palmer’s old Ryder Cup bags was placed on the first tee at the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine; in March, at Bay Hill in Orlando, where Palmer spent winters since the mid-1960s, more than 60 players took part in a “21 gun” salute on the practice grounds to start the Arnold Palmer Invitational; at last month’s Boeing Invitational in Seattle, home to a PGA Tour Champions event, a 787-8 Dreamliner flew overhead at Snoqualmie Ridge, with Palmer’s signature, colorful umbrella emblazoned on the belly of the plane. As people peered into a blue sky, the scene left lumps in many throats.

Last week the Tour Championship was staged at East Lake Golf Club, where in 1963 Palmer served victoriously as the last playing captain in the Ryder Cup. There were mementos of Palmer’s time at the club. Inside a glass case on the first floor in the stately clubhouse, his persimmon woods and MacGregor MT irons – with rusted lead tape on the heads and those trademark wrapped leather grips he’d put on himself – were housed in his 1963 Ryder Cup bag. Palmer had defeated 26-year-old rookie George Will of Scotland in singles, 3 and 2, and finished 4-2 to help lead the U.S. to a resounding 23-9 romp. The reminders and trinkets – his money clip, his locker plate, his captain’s trophy – are nice, but they also make us stop and miss the man. 

One year later, what is it that we miss most?

“I think everybody needs a pick me up along the way,” PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan said. “Everyone needs that source of inspiration, and he was always one to fill that gap for a lot of people. Just being around him inherently gave you an added appreciation for all of us playing the small part that we play in this game.”

One year ago, Monahan, then-Commissioner Tim Finchem and Ty Votaw were pulling out of the players’ lot at East Lake on Sunday evening after the finish, and they could not have been on a bigger high. The final round of the Tour Championship had been sensational, with Rory McIlroy charging hard down the stretch, shooting 64, then winning a thrilling playoff over Ryan Moore and Kevin Chappell. McIlroy had doubled up, too. His victory also delivered the FedEx Cup, a perfect 10th-anniversary celebration.

The three Tour officials had just left a FedEx hospitality after-party on site, where they’d spent time with McIlroy, and now were headed to the airport to get back to Florida headquarters after a long season. Finchem was scrolling through his phone. “Oh, my God,” he said. Fifteen seconds of profound silence followed that felt like forever.

“Arnold passed away,” he said somberly.

The three sat in the darkness outside the East Lake gates on Alston Drive.

“I’ll never forget it,” Monahan said, “because he (Finchem) had been so good in making sure that I had gotten a lot of time with Arnold in the three years that preceded that. I’ll also never forget it because of how emotional he was, and how clear it was to me … how much Arnold meant to him.”

Arnold met a good deal to so many people. It’s sounds trite, but everybody, and we mean everybody, it seems, has a Palmer story. A sighting, an encounter, an exchange. Former Cleveland Plain Dealer golf writer George Sweda Jr. once talked Palmer into joining him at his high school reunion. On the memorabilia front, Palmer’s autograph isn’t worth much, only because he took the time to sign so many of them, all of them perfectly legible. 

In the year that has passed, there are different settings and times that we long for Palmer’s presence. This week’s Hall of Fame induction in New York and Presidents Cup in New Jersey are two occasions we might have seen the man. Aussie Marc Leishman won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, and though five high-profile ambassadors had stepped in to fill the King’s shoes as collective host during the tournament week, Leishman stood on the 18th green awaiting the winner’s ceremony and could palpably feel the void.

 “It was massive,” Leishman said. “You see guys win his tournament before, and he’s always there to meet them. When I won and he wasn’t there, it was kind of emotional. You knew that he wasn’t going to be around anymore. It really hit home.”

The year that has followed Palmer’s death has allowed for the telling of so many great stories about the man. Rob Johnson, the general chairman at the Tour Championship and a member at Augusta National, where Palmer, a four-time Masters champion, also was a member, remembers the laughter that always surrounded Palmer. Johnson was a relatively new member at Augusta when a server approached him to point out that a green-jacketed member a few tables over was dining without a tie. 

 “Oh,” Johnson told the server, “why that’s Arnold Palmer.”

 The server’s reply? “Really? You mean the lemonade man?”

 Of course, when Palmer was told the story, he laughed harder and longer than anyone.

What did Johnson feel this April in Augusta, when the Masters moved on for the first time since the 1950s without Palmer?

 “Vacant,” he said candidly. “Empty.”

The tournament that Palmer helped to build at Bay Hill that bears his name (it was the former Florida Citrus Open, played at Rio Pinar) will live on as a mainstay of the Florida Swing, and the hope is that players will continue to support it, even if its gracious host no longer is churning across the property, seemingly everywhere, in his personal golf cart, two full bags of Callaway clubs strapped on the back.

“I hope that players keep going, and I hope that field continues to be strong,” said Webb Simpson, who attended Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer Scholarship. Simpson competed twice at Bay Hill as an amateur, and in spending time around Palmer, he came to appreciate his people skills. Palmer made time for everyone.

Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented By MasterCard - Preview Day 2

Arnold Palmer’s statue stands by the first tee at Bay Hill in Orlando. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

“He always took care of us,” Simpson said. “Every tournament at Bay Hill, I’d go up and see him and Doc (Giffin, Palmer’s longtime assistant) up in his office. It just felt weird to be there this year. I know the game certainly misses him.” 

Matt Kuchar, who grew up about 30 minutes from Bay Hill, won the 1997 U.S. Amateur (which Palmer had won in 1954) and at 19, was invited out to play in Bay Hill’s famed mid-day member Shootout alongside the King.

“You shook his hand, and he made you feel like you’d known him your whole life,” Kuchar said.

Smiling at the memory of the day, Kuchar added, “At 19, I thought I was pretty good, and he had aged, but he was still playing golf. You could tell he wanted nothing more than to beat me that day. He was grinding. He loved to compete.”

At Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club on Friday, members were invited to celebrate Palmer by playing a 16-hole round. Why 16 holes? Because Palmer was playing with buddies one day and decided on the 16th green that 16 holes had been plenty. Somebody brought down drinks, and that was that.

Latrobe is where his father, Deacon, was superintendent and pro and taught young Arnold the game, arranging the child’s small hands on the grip just so and telling him never to change it. He never did.

Palmer would sit in the grill room at Latrobe and tell the story of being a youth of about 6, and being paid to knock a drive across a ditch on the old fifth hole by one of the club’s female members, Mrs. Fritz.

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

Palmer’s incredible gift as a people person? Consider this goose bump-inducing story, which was told by author Tom Callahan in a beautiful biography released this year, titled “Arnie.”

Arnold Palmer Timeline

Honorary starter Arnold Palmer walks through the crowd after teeing off to start the first round of the 2008 Masters. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Two servicemen pals from Chicago, Jeff Roberts and Wally Schneider, who were stationed in Vietnam, once wrote to Palmer to ask for help with their bunker games. Palmer replied to the two with a note, but he also sent them two sand wedges and some golf balls.

When Roberts was back stateside, he went to watch Palmer at the Western Open outside of Chicago, and waited outside the clubhouse at Olympia Fields to speak with him. He got his chance, and told Palmer that he was one of the two soldiers to whom Palmer had shipped clubs in Vietnam.

Palmer, who’d meet tens of thousands of fans a year, looked Roberts in the eye and asked him, “Are you Jeff or Wally?”

Monahan believes there was a certain full-circle symmetry to the timing of Palmer’s death. It was McIlroy, the talented Northern Irishman, who’d won the Tour Championship in Palmer fashion that Sunday at East Lake on Palmer’s last day on this earth. Six months earlier, Monahan had been sitting with Palmer and Finchem at a corner table at Bay Hill overlooking the practice green during the Arnold Palmer Invitational. It was there that Palmer and Finchem would meet for a Wednesday lunch each year. McIlroy pulled up to say hello. He was playing Palmer’s event for the first time.

Monahan picks up the story: “Rory said, ‘Mr. Palmer, I just wanted to say, I’ve been around a couple of times, the golf course is in magnificent condition, I love it. I just want you to know that I look to play here every year going forward.’ And Arnold said, ‘Geesh, Rory, it’s great to have you here, I appreciate you coming over. If there’s anything we can do for you, whether you need tickets, whether you need some ice cream – whatever you need …’” 

“And Rory stopped him mid-sentence and said, ‘Mr. Palmer, thanks to you, I have everything I could ever need.’ That, to me, was a really cool moment. And then Rory wins the cup, and does it in the fashion he did it in, and Arnold passed, and it was like one of these full-circle moments.”

Arnold Palmer Biography Letters History

Arnold Palmer loved his fans, and they loved him back tenfold. (AP Photo/ Rusty Kennedy)

Perhaps Palmer’s biggest lesson left behind would be how he treated his fans. He gave them love, and they loved him back tenfold.

“I think we miss the humanity that Arnold brought,” said Peter Jacobsen, who was a PGA Tour rookie when he met Palmer and enjoyed a close, 40-year friendship. “He brought a realism. He was a guy you could trust and you could like, and if you said ‘Hi’ to him, you know there’s a good chance he’s going to look you in the eye and say, ‘How are you doing?’ ”

Monahan took office in January with a singular goal for 2017 and beyond: Make Mr. Palmer proud. When he looks around at various tournaments and sees players high-fiving with fans, tossing golf balls to children, and maybe spending a few more minutes than normal signing autographs after a round, he likes to think it’s no coincidence. He likes to believe Mr. Palmer would approve.

Arnold Palmer is gone, and that’s very sad, but he lived such a rich life, and he left us all so much.

“I think it’s pretty cool to go places and see the Arnie umbrellas still flown proudly,” Kuchar said. “I see them all over the place. He certainly was a legend in the game, and one of those guys you looked up to, and a guy you so wanted to be like.

“I think the spirit lives on. He’ll never be forgotten.”

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