HARTFORD, Conn – I admittedly have got a bit misty on Sept. 10 the past three years because that’s how long it has been since The King died.
Tuesday would have been Arnold Palmer’s 90th birthday, but despite his death, his impact is still felt on the PGA Tour as strongly as when he spent his days signing autographs at home in Latrobe, Pa., or buzzing around in a golf cart at his beloved Bay Hill Golf Club in Orlando, Fla.
Palmer’s reach transcended golf, and his appeal was not only felt by those in and around the game, but his recognition extended beyond the course as he managed to span generations like few have ever done.
“He was just a cool guy, and he got along with everyone,” Australian Adam Scott said. “He was 80 years old and he got along with 20-year-olds, and 20-year-olds wanted to hang around him. He liked telling some stories and having a good time, and I think he genuinely kind of loved living life. And that’s appealing to a lot of people.”
Palmer’s legacy is still in the spotlight every March, when the PGA Tour returns to Orlando to hold the invitational that bears his name. But it’s also felt the other 51 weeks of the year, both inside and outside the ropes, as the modern game he helped to mold continues to grow and thrive.
“You had big names back then in professional golf. (Sam) Snead, (Ben) Hogan and a bunch down the line, but Arnie was the King,” said Jim Furyk, who shot a PGA Tour record 12-under-par 58 in the final round of the 2017 Travelers Championship at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell. “I think he and Jack (Nicklaus) made a lot of decisions for the betterment of the game, for the betterment of all golf professionals, when they were the two biggest names in golf and probably had the opportunity to benefit themselves a little bit more if they wanted. But they chose the right way, and the correct way.”
While many credit Tiger Woods with the explosion in PGA Tour prize money the last 20 years, the infrastructure of modern Tour golf bears the fingerprints of Palmer. All of the perks that players will enjoy at the season-opening A Salute to the Military at The Greenbrier that begins Thursday in West Virginia, from television coverage to hundreds of fans angling for an autograph, can all be traced back to what Palmer did in the prime of his career.
I was at Litchfield High School when Palmer was in his prime, and I was honored to earn the nickname Arnie because I fell behind early in most of my matches but used my personal “charge” to pull out a win. I also got to play six holes with Arnie when he attended Media Day as the defending champion of a PGA Tour Champions event in Marlborough, Mass. My greatest claim to golf fame was beating him on one hole and tying him on another. You can be sure that I got Arnie to sign the golf ball that I used.
Then I was fortunate to meet and chat with Arnie in his office several times when I played his Bay Hill Club while visiting my parents in Orlando, Fla., and usually found him autographing hats, caps, pictures, whatever in his typical perfect penmanship. One morning, I stopped to get a coffee in the dining room, and there was Arnie sitting in a corner having breakfast with several friends. I eased my way over to their table and finally reintroduced myself to The King, who of course remembered little ole me from Connecticut, where he served in the Coast Guard and won his first PGA Tour title in America in the 1956 Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club. It was not long after his beloved wife Winnie had died, so I offered condolences and mentioned that my mother had died a few weeks after Winnie.
The words about my mom were barely out of my mouth when Arnie invited me to sit down, chat and have some breakfast. Typical Arnie, and I could have cared less when my starting time was. I spent about 15 minutes with The King, who made me feel like A King and reminded me of what Englishman Justin Rose once said.
“Arnie kind of made everyone feel special when he was around people. That was his greatest skill,” Rose said. “His record speaks for itself, and he had a great and loyal army of fans. But it was the one-to-one interactions that made him different. For such a legend, he never got too big-time that his time was more important than anybody else’s.”
Amen, Justin. The PGA Tour recently named its Rookie of the Year trophy as the Arnold Palmer Award and first-year players couldn’t have a better memento to have. My last suppressed desire is to be among the dozens of pros offering their best imitation of Arnie’s iconic follow-through during the honorary start to his namesake tournament. That will never happen, but I’ll also never forget the man rightfully called The King. No golfer has deserved the moniker more than Mr. Palmer.