WORCESTER, Mass – Watching the Arnold Palmer Invitational last weekend reminded me of my best memory of the King.
Ticket sales would soar 30 to 40 percent whenever Palmer played in the Senior Tour event at Nashawtuc Country Club in Concord, Massachusetts, in the 1990s and early 2000s even though he was no longer a threat to win. Tracy West, tournament director at Nashawtuc then and at the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship now, used to say that fans would rather watch Palmer shoot a 75 than follow the leaders. Fans brought their children so they could say that they had watched Palmer play in person.
Arnie’s Army adored Palmer and his golf game was only part of the reason. His warm personality was another. He signed every autograph, shook countless hands and posed for innumerable photographs with fans.
One year at Nashawtuc, Palmer happened to be playing a practice round late in the afternoon by himself. No fans were on hand. He had the place to himself – except for me and another sports writer who followed him for awhile in hopes of asking him a few questions afterward so we could write stories about him. We made sure to keep our distance so we wouldn’t distract him.
After we watched him for a few holes, he putted out and walked toward us. I must admit that I was concerned that he was upset that we were bothering him and he was going to tell us to leave him alone.
“Do you guys want to talk to me?” he asked.
“Yes,” we replied.
I figured he was going to tell us that he was too busy practicing to give an interview and he would instruct us to try to schedule an interview for another day. But he surprised us.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Ask your questions now.”
As I said, we had been willing to wait until after his round to speak to him, but we interviewed Palmer for a few minutes right then and there on the golf course. He couldn’t have been more accommodating. When we finished, he walked to the next tee and resumed playing his practice round.
I’ll never forget that day. Palmer showed that he was not only the King of golf, but the King of kindness. Palmer was friends with U.S. Presidents, but he never forgot his fans and he always had a close relationship with the media.
Through his golf, shrewd business deals and endorsements, such as the creation of the Arnold Palmer drink, a combination of iced tea and lemonade, he left an estate worth $875 million when he died at age 87 in September of 2016. But he was known for being a regular guy and treating everyone with respect. I bet everyone he met has a story of kindness to tell about him. It makes you wonder why everyone can’t be that way.
Palmer won 95 professional tournaments, including 62 on the PGA Tour and 10 on PGA Tour Champions, then known as the Senior Tour. I’m a longtime resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, so the two victories that hit closest to home for me were those at the 1968 Kemper Open at Pleasant Valley Country Club in nearby Sutton and the 1982 Marlborough Classic in close by Marlborough on the Senior Tour. I covered that 1982 event and also covered the PGA Tour events held at TPC Boston in Norton, one of the 300 golf courses that Palmer designed.
Palmer came close to collecting another victory in Massachusetts – losing in a playoff to Julius Boros in the 1963 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline. Worcester native Paul Harney missed qualifying for the playoff by a shot when his 12-foot par putt on 18 stopped just short of the cup.