I lost a hero last week.
At the age of 12, I fell head over heels in love…..with the game of golf. I pretty much gave up football, basketball, and baseball, which I had loved, for a sport I loved even more. I don’t know why it was that way, but it was. I like to say I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the game all these years. I like to point out that “golf” is a 4- letter word. Sometimes the game is so frustrating that I even wonder why I play it.
But I can tell you a that a primary reason I have loved and played the game is the influence of one man—Arnold Palmer. When “Arnie” died last week at the age of 87, a true legend was lost, and millions upon millions of people have grieved his passing.
Arnie rose to stardom in the 1950’s when golf was not a lucrative option for most players. With his swashbuckling style, his outgoing personality, and his genuine approachability, Arnie rose to stardom as a kind of “everyman” who happened to play golf in an exciting and winning way. People loved him. People flocked to watch him…..so many, they were dubbed “Arnie’s Army.” Golf telecasts on television, which were a new thing, helped promote the developing legend and the game grew rapidly.
It was during this time in the early 60’s that I began watching him, idolizing him, and trying to copy him. When he said the Masters golf tournament was the greatest tournament in the world, I believed him and dreamed of one day playing in it. You’ve probably guessed that never happened, but how wonderful for me that the Masters was played 2 hours from my home, and I got to go there and see him in 1965 and 1966. I would see him years later in a couple of other places, including Atlanta and Winston-Salem. In fact, when we lived in Winston-Salem I took my son Zach to the Vantage Senior tournament, and as we walked up to the hole Arnie was playing, he hit a sand shot that went straight into the hole. “Zach, that is Arnold Palmer.”
I marveled at stories told about Arnie from one of his Wake Forest teammates, who happened to live in the same retirement community as my dad. “Arnie called me the other day,” he would say, “just to see how I’m doing.” That was Arnie.
Many stories have been told about him this past week, stories of a man who seemed to make everyone he met, from sportscasters to housekeepers, feel important. One of my favorite stories was told at his memorial service by his grandson Sam Saunders. Sam called him one day and his grandfather answered as he always did, not with “Hello” but with, “Where are you?” “I’m at home,” replied Sam. “Where are you?” “I’m with the president,” Arnie said. “The president of what?” asked Sam. “The president of the United States. I’m in the Oval Office.” “Then why are you answering your phone?” Sam asked him. “Because I wanted to talk to you,’ was the answer. “He always wanted to talk to me,” Sam reflected. “He was always there for me, and for all our family, and for everyone.”
Arnie was an astute businessman, an accomplished pilot, and a generous philanthropist (he and his wife Winnie built and/or supported hospitals in Orlando, California, and Pennsylvania). I don’t ever remember hearing Arnie talk about his faith, although I understand he was Catholic. The older I get, the more interested I am in seeing how a person lives, how they treat others, than in hearing them say what they believe. And what I know, from all the stories, is that Arnold Palmer was authentic, honest, generous, respectful of everyone, interested in everyone. He built people up. We could use more of what Arnie modeled for us in this world today.
I lost a hero last week…..he will always be “the King” of the golf world…and I will be among those who will not forget Arnold Palmer.