Arnold Palmer was my friend. Heck, he was everybody’s friend.
On the evening of his death the last Sunday in September, I sat on my sofa scrolling endlessly through my Twitter feed reading other’s reactions to his passing and their tributes to the man they called “The King.” There was profound sadness. This was a man of great charisma, kindness, compassion and honor. Yet, at the same time, there was a sense of “feel good” that emanated from the messages. The stories of how he impacted the lives of others was uplifting and inspiring.
While I was touched by the comments of those who knew him well, I was moved even more by those who never met him: people who said they took up the game of golf because of him; the person who didn’t play golf, but admired his character, mannerisms and style; the golf course superintendents who appreciated the respect he had for the golf course.
My personal interactions with Arnold Palmer were limited. I did shake his hand at a reception and was greeted by his wonderful smile, caring eyes and warm and authentic “hello, nice to meet you.” He did not leave the reception that evening until he talked with every individual there. If you want to watch a room light up, you would just invite Arnold Palmer.
The son of a greenkeeper, Palmer was beloved by superintendents, and he returned the admiration for them. His respect for golf courses and the professionals who manage them was genuine. During my time at the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, I worked with him to shoot a television commercial for the association on behalf of its members. He declined any compensation for his time. When GCSAA later collaborated on a book commemorating its 75th anniversary, Palmer wrote a personal note to the association leadership thanking them for allowing him to write the foreward. He wrote that he was “honored” to be asked to do it.
There were numerous industry events where I saw him in action. His best performance in my opinion was at Augusta National. On that day, I was following him for a Masters practice round a few years before he retired. This was at the height of Tiger Wood’s popularity, so despite a group that included Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tom Watson, the gallery was not very large. Positioned halfway up the fairway just outside the ropes was an elderly woman using a motorized, single rider car. Palmer noticed her and made a beeline to her after hitting his tee shot. He ducked below the ropes, got down on a knee, grabbed her hand and, with a huge smile on his face, engaged in conversation. After some brief banter, he gave her a hug and joined his partners who were near the green by now.
I hung back when Palmer approached his admiring fan, not wanting to ruin any of the moment. But I was close enough to see him take a few steps, turn back to her, flash his smile and give the patented wink and thumbs up known to so many.
In the end, Arnold Palmer’s reach and ability to make others feel good and feel good about themselves surpassed all that he accomplished on the course. Golf was only the platform that allowed him to share himself with others. He did it with a flair and grace, but without a self-centered ego that we see all too often these days.
We are happy to have witnessed his greatness, but sad because we know there will not be another one like him.