Celebration fit for 'The King’: ‘We all loved Arnold Palmer'

Arnold Palmer received many touching tributes Tuesday.

Celebration fit for 'The King’: ‘We all loved Arnold Palmer'

Professional

Celebration fit for 'The King’: ‘We all loved Arnold Palmer'

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LATROBE, Pa. – On a crisp autumn morning in the hills just down the road from where Arnold Palmer’s father, Deacon, first placed his son’s hands on a golf club and where his mother, Doris, taught her son the warmth of treating people the right way, Arnold Palmer’s incredible and rich life was celebrated at the St. Vincent Basilica on the campus of St. Vincent College.

The collection of those showing up Tuesday was a wide mix, as one might imagine. U.S. captain Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson, Rickie Fowler and Bubba Watson arrived with the Ryder Cup, leaving it on a table in the back of the basilica during the service. There were Masters winners, U.S. Open winners and players who won the British Open, just as Palmer had, dozens and dozens of golfers spanning generations and eras. There were giants of business. Musician Darius Rucker attended, and Vince Gill, a longtime friend of Palmer’s, sang two songs, helping to close the ceremony with “You’ve Got a Friend.”

There were more talented golfers and those who won more tournaments and trophies, but never has there been a more important and more impactful ambassador for the game than Arnold Daniel Palmer, who died Sept. 25 from heart complications at age 87.

“There’s an old saying that there are no irreplaceable people,” said Charlie Mechem, the former LPGA commissioner and friend who worked as a consultant to Palmer for more than a decade. “Whoever made that line never met Arnold Palmer. There will never be another.”

Palmer won 62 times as a member of the PGA Tour, including seven major championships, was instrumental in the startup of the PGA Senior Tour and even hosted a PGA Tour event with his name on it, the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club in Orlando, Fla.

But friends, family and those enlisted members of “Arnie’s Army” who simply loved the man – Mechem called Tuesday morning’s group “an elite battalion” – gathered to celebrate the man, not the golfer. His friends filled the interior of the majestic basilica that was built by Benedictine monks more than a century ago, and students and fans watched a live feed at several other posts on campus – in a performing-arts theater, in an auditorium and on two Jumbotrons at Chuck Noll Field. The service was filled at times with laughter and other times with tears and warm remembrances, as speakers gave testimony to Palmer’s deep affinity for golf, for aviation and for his family.

CBS announcer Jim Nantz spoke about the time a decade ago when he went to a state dinner at the White House alongside President George W. Bush, first lady Laura Bush, Britain’s Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II. The queen asked Palmer a great question that night: How many people have you played golf with in your lifetime? Palmer hemmed and hawed trying to think of an answer. “One hundred thousand?” she asked. Palmer raised his thumb, as if to signal more. “Five hundred thousand?” she said.

He gave that one the thumbs up.

Nantz laughed, and he and Palmer later discussed that the math from that evening didn’t quite add up. To get to 100,000, Palmer would have had to have played every day of his life with three different people – and live to be 500.

Which is how long we all wished that Arnold Palmer could be around.

Yes, there were presidents and royalty, but Palmer was every bit as comfortable downstairs with the members at Latrobe Country Club, where his late father began working as superintendent in 1924 (he’d become head professional in 1931), or with close buddies in the locker room at Bay Hill, which he first played in 1965 and later would purchase.

Jack Nicklaus, who came along in the early 1960s to threaten Palmer’s reign, spoke of a rival who would become one of his closest friends. He knew Palmer in seven decades, dating to the first time he saw him, when Nicklaus was 14 and competing at the Ohio Amateur. There was a man with strong Popeye-like forearms slashing golf balls in the rain, and Nicklaus wanted to know who it was. That’s Arnold Palmer, he was told, our defending champion.

He said when Palmer died, a piece of him went, too.

“I hurt like you hurt,” Nicklaus said. “You don’t lose a friend of 60 years and don’t feel an enormous loss.”

Most touching on Tuesday were the words of Sam Saunders, Palmer’s 29-year-old grandson, who has followed his beloved “Dumpy” by carving out a career as a professional golfer. His grandfather could be tough on him at times, Saunders said, but also was very loving and caring. Saunders said no matter where Palmer was, he always took his grandson’s calls.

Always.

The conversations usually would open with the grandfather asking his grandson exactly where he was, sometimes followed quickly by, “Why aren’t you playing?”

Saunders flipped the switch on his famous granddad one day. He asked, “Where are you?” Palmer said, “I’m with the president.” Sam retorted, “The president of what?” Adds Sam, “And he said to me as if it was so obvious, ‘The president of the United States. I’m in the Oval Office.’ ”

The last phone call between the two would come just hours before Palmer died in a University of Pittsburgh hospital. Saunders called his grandfather to tell him he was thinking about him. Palmer told his grandson to take care of his family.

“I told him I love him,” Saunders said. “He told me he loved me back. I will cherish that forever.”

Palmer, and his late first wife, Winnie, had two daughters as well as grandchildren and great grandchildren, and the man whom they knew wasn’t much different than the international superstar golfer and pitchman whom the rest of the world came to know. That was the simplicity of Arnold Palmer. He was good to all. Everybody who ever saw him at a tournament, who saw him wink at them across the gallery ropes, who asked him to sign a flag or a program, will forever have an Arnie story.

“A common man,” said former LPGA great Annika Sorenstam, “yet so far from common.”

Palmer’s longtime friend Russ Meyer, former chief executive and chairman emeritus of Cessna Aircraft Co., said that Palmer was such a good pilot, and had such good hands in the cockpit, that had he not been a Hall of Fame golfer, he might have been a fighter pilot or astronaut. Palmer flew his final flight a few years back at age 81, and out of respect for a flying career that dated to the 1960s, the airspace was cleared for him. He took his jet from California to Orlando in 3 hours, 17 minutes, yet another speed record.

In learning to fly his own plane, Palmer could toss his clubs into the storage area, fly to an outing and get back home to Latrobe in time for dinner.

Nicklaus fought his emotions during his speech, but closed it wishing to sign off the way longtime Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully signed off in retiring last week: “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

As family, players and friends filed solemnly out of the basilica and stood in the sunshine, Palmer’s longtime co-pilot, Pete Luster, flew past in Palmer’s jet (tail letters N1AP) not once, but twice. The first time, he flew low past the basilica and banked left. On the second pass, he flew in low and then took the jet vertical.

Everyone squinted to follow its ascent, and soon it vanished into the clouds. That’s what this last week has been like with Arnold Palmer. For decades, he was always here for us, bringing sunshine into everybody’s lives. And just like that, he’s gone, heading off somewhere behind the clouds.

“There wasn’t a big difference between the man you saw on TV and the man we knew at home,” Saunders said in describing his famous grandfather. “We are all here for the same reason. We all loved Arnold Palmer.”

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