Arnold Palmer is still among us.
You see him whenever a professional golfer is signing autographs, posing for selfies, exchanging handshakes, smiles and a few words.
You think of him when golf’s professional brethren and tournaments across the world raise millions for charities.
And he is all of us who pound golf balls and tinker with equipment and our swings yearning to hit the perfect shot.
Arnold Daniel Palmer would have turned 90 Tuesday, but the massive footprint he left behind and the example he set lives on three years after his passing.
He connected with the masses, from kids to their grandparents, from the hourly wage employee to the CEO, from stars of the silver screen to occupants of the White House.
He was the common man who would become the King and lead Arnie’s Army, the telegenic golfer who burst out of black-and-white television sets across the country in the late 1950s and into the 1960s as the staid sport became popular.
“Arnold meant everything to golf. Are you kidding me?” Tiger Woods said. “I mean, without his charisma, without his personality in conjunction with TV – it was just the perfect symbiotic growth. You finally had someone who had this charisma, and they’re capturing it on TV for the very first time.
“Everyone got hooked to the game of golf via TV because of Arnold.”
Or as Palmer’s good friend, Bob Hope, once said, “There are two things that made golf appealing to the average man – Arnold Palmer and the invention of the mulligan.”
But Arnie was so much more.
He was one of the sport’s best players and a flourishing businessman who made $20 million a year well into his 80s. A philanthropist who raised hundreds of millions of dollars, a trailblazing advertising spokesman who pitched clubs, slacks, motor oil and rental cars, an accomplished aviator, a talented golf course designer with more than 225 courses to his name.
He won green jackets, a gray Claret Jug and a silver U.S. Open trophy, and a Congressional Gold Medal – as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He helped found the Golf Channel and helped usher in the Champions Tour. There is a drink named in his honor as well as an airport, a tournament, hospitals, streets, charity initiatives and 19th-hole grills.
While his fans included presidents – Dwight Eisenhower was one of his best friends and painted a portrait of Palmer, Richard Nixon asked Palmer about the Vietnam War, he played golf with Bush 41 and 43 and gave tips to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – he was right at home sharing a cup of joe with the Average Joe.
Much of Palmer’s appeal was his unorthodox approach to the game that played well with the weekend hacker. His swing was not a model of aesthetics, but with thick forearms and a thin waist, Palmer had an aggressive risk-reward approach that made for compelling theater. He hitched up his trousers and hit the ball with authority and feared no obstacle before him.
“Arnold Palmer was the everyday man’s hero,” Nicklaus said. “From the modest upbringing, Arnold embodied the hard-working strength of America. The game has given so much to Arnold Palmer, but he has given back so much more.”
He still does.