When golfing legend Arnold Palmer died this past weekend, he took a chunk of me with him. That may sound rather schmaltzy, but it’s absolutely true. I think a lot of people in America and around the world would say the same thing.
“Arnie,” as he was affectionately known, was considered the king of golf during his glory years, and he wore that crown until the day he drew his final breath. But to me, Elvis Presley will always be the “king” – period. A better word to describe Arnold Palmer is “gentleman” and he was just that.
With a perpetual smile and a twinkle in his eye that clearly displayed to everyone how much he loved life and the game of golf, Arnold could charm a kiss out of a king cobra. Evidence of that remarkable charisma is how much his fans, the media and even his opponents respected and genuinely liked him – a lot. You can count me among his ardent admirers.
A native of Latrobe, Penn., Arnie’s career peaked at just the right time. Extensive television coverage of professional golf took off big time as he began to win tournament after tournament, and the public loved it.
With his movie star good looks, a magnetism that will probably never be duplicated and an ample dose of humility, Arnie was the perfect “leading man” and golf’s popularity soared right along with him. It’s not exaggerating to say Arnold Palmer helped make golf into the popular game it is today.
Unlike so many other professional golfers who grew up learning the game at a prestigious country club, Arnie was taught how to play by his father who was the greens keeper at the local course.
Not an elitist pro who never had to work at anything other than his game, Arnie was more blue-collar and fans ate it up. His go-for-broke approach to the game had infinite appeal. He seldom played it safe on the golf course, preferring instead to attack at every opportunity. His swing was far from classic -- some said he looked more like a hockey player trying to unload on a slap shot – but the results were undeniable. There’s an old saying in golf that goes like this, “It doesn’t matter how, just how many,” and Arnie epitomized that.
He also had a characteristic that quickly became a trademark of his game. Whenever he was faced with a difficult or important shot, Arnie would get “steely-eyed,” grab his belt and hitch up his pants before addressing the ball. His fans would encourage him with shouts of “Hitch ’em and go Arnie,” and he usually responded with another masterful stroke.
I fell in love with golf about the same time Arnie was becoming a media darling, and I’ve followed his career closely ever since. I poured over the sports pages each weekend to see how he had done (There was no ESPN back then and newspapers were the only viable source of information.), and I even got the chance to see – and meet – the great man.
The first time I saw him was in 1966 at the Western Open tournament played at Medinah Country Club just north of Chicago. It was a Saturday and while he wasn’t leading, Arnie, as usual, was in contention. With the massive “Arnie’s Army” crowd that always followed him, I knew I’d have to be clever if I expected to get “near” him, so I positioned myself next to the tee-box on a par four that he would soon be playing.
When he finally arrived, I was in awe. I so adored the man. And he didn’t disappoint. When it was his turn to hit, he teed up his ball, hitched up his pants and let her rip. A perfect three-wood he somehow hooked around a big tree that guarded the fairway on the dogleg left. Amazing.
But my greatest moment with Arnie occurred in 1985 at the senior tour event at Canterbury Country Club just south of Cleveland. As assistant sports editor at the Canton (Ohio) Repository, I was assigned to cover the tournament. Since Arnie was leading -- and would go on to win -- I was thrilled beyond belief.
My press pass gave me total access to the players and the course, so I shadowed the great man for three days … from practice tee to the 19th hole. Gracious, warm and generous, he treated me more like an old friend rather than a young, star-struck reporter still wet behind the ears.
The moment that I’ll always remember, however, came on Sunday morning, the final day of the tournament. I took my 8-year-old son David and my 4-year-old boy Zach with me so they could watch Arnie tee-off on the first hole.
When the announcer introduced Arnie, the crowd went wild and when the applause subsided, I nudged Zach and told him to yell “Hi, Arnie.” It stopped Palmer in his tracks and without hesitating – even though he was about to begin his final round – he came over to us and said, “Hi, Rick.”
I responded in kind and told Arnie the boy who yelled was my young son Zach. Arnie immediately shook Zach’s hand and said, “Well hello Zach, I didn’t know you were gonna be here.”
I’m in tears as I write this. RIP Arnold Palmer and thanks for everything. You will be missed forever. Save a spot for me in your heavenly foursome. I’ll look forward to it.
Hitch ’em and go, Arnie. Hitch ’em and go.