I join the golf world in mourning the passing yesterday of Arnold Palmer, perhaps the greatest ambassador ever for his or any sport. I was born in June of 1958, just three months after his first major victory, the Masters. His stunning comeback in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills came on the weekend of my second birthday. When he said goodbye to the U.S. Open, walking up the fairway at Oakmont Country Club in 1994, I was celebrating my 36th birthday. I can't remember not idolizing him, my youth forever intertwined with his exploits on and off the golf course. Palmer endorsed McGregor clubs, so my first driver was a persimmon headed MT, one that I didn't give up until the advances in technology forced me to do so. He wore those alpaca golf sweaters, so when I could afford it, I bought one for my father, the only man who was above Palmer in my world.
There were other ties to the man known as The King. In 1967, he played an exhibition in Richmond at the Country Club of Virginia. We were living in Roanoke, about four hours away, and my father surprised me with tickets and a day off from school to see my idol in person. At some point in the round, I was still waiting for an opportunity to get him to autograph my program. I was standing near the ropes as Arnie hit his second shot. As he was preparing to walk to the green, he motioned to a marshal to let me inside the ropes and I walked briskly to his side. I handed him my program and he signed as he walked, but it was at a pace too fast for me to keep up, so the security guards at his side each picked me up by an elbow so I didn't slow him down. When he was finished, he handed me the program, I thanked him and headed back to my spot next the fairway. The rest of the day is a blur, but I still have that program, to this day my most prized possession.
Palmer was in Richmond that day to play a round of golf with Lanny Wadkins, a senior in high school and one of the early recipients of Palmer's scholarship to Wake Forest. My sister was already at Wake, a sophomore at the time. Although Palmer attended Wake Forest, he never received his degree, leaving just before graduation after his close friend Bud Worsham was killed in a car accident. The scholarship was established by Palmer in Worsham's memory and the exhibition was to help fund it. When my sister graduated in 1970, Arnold Palmer also received his honorary degree during the ceremony. I'm still accused of appreciating Palmer's presence far more than my sister's. What can I say? A couple of years later, I started to shag balls and caddie for Curtis Strange, who led our Princess Anne High School golf team to three consecutive state titles. As it would happen, Curtis was also a recipient of Palmer's scholarship.
In 1976, when Palmer was a month shy of his 47th birthday, he was near the lead at the PGA Championship at Congressional Country Club outside Washington, D.C. Once again, my father had arranged for tickets and we made the four hour drive from Virginia Beach. Arnie's Army was out in full force, with most of us realizing that it was probably the last chance we had to see our hero contend in a major. By the time he hit the back nine, the crowds were six deep around the greens, making it nearly impossible to follow him from hole to hole. Eventually, though, he faded from contention and Dave Stockton eventually won the tournament. But the experience of witnessing his charisma and popularity first hand at a major championship has always stayed with me.
Someone asked me once to compare the attraction generated by Tiger Woods with the excitement Arnold Palmer inspired. From a pure athletic standpoint, Tiger was incredible. But that's really where the comparison ends. Arnold Palmer was, as it's been repeated often the last couple of days, an everyman's hero. He came from humble beginnings, never refused to sign autographs and took the time to do it with feeling and appreciation. In 1987, there was a senior tour event in Richmond, and the bank I worked for was a sponsor. Palmer had agreed to play in some events in order for the tour to gain popularity. At an exclusive event hosted by the bank, I again had the opportunity to approach him for an autograph, this time on a plastic visor with a golf ball on it that we'd been given as we entered. With me was the program from that day so long in the past. I was tempted to have him sign it again, but instead just showed it to him. As he signed the visor, he said, "You wouldn't believe how many people have told me this week that they were there that day, but it's obvious you were." The interesting thing about his statement was that he didn't say he didn't believe the others and it was clear that it didn't really matter. What mattered to him was that he connect with me, and he did.
An era has ended, and a very significant one at that. I told my wife last night that it wasn't just that he was charismatic, or that he won a lot of golf tournaments, or even that he seemed like a really nice person. What he inspired by the way he played golf changed the way we thought about the game and the people who played it. He gave hope to those of us who, like him, were on the outside of the country club fence looking in. His ventures and success in the business world, and even his succssful efforts for the tour players to break away from the club professionals, made everyone think that it was possible for them, too. I'm a member of a very large group of people who started playing golf and still do because Arnold Palmer inspired my father to take up the game around the time I was born. What I owe Arnold Palmer are all those special moments I shared with my father on the golf course, the memories of Saturday mornings with the dew still clinging to the grass as we hit our shots into the mist. Or trying to see the flagstick in the dwindling light, hoping to get one more hole in before darkness took over the course until another day dawned.
I hope to see Arnold Palmer one more time, and I will again have pen in hand, as he signs his name, while sitting next to my father. That's my dream, but it doesn't really matter if it happens, because Arnold Palmer has already made dreams possible for so many. Rest in peace, Arnold Palmer. Heaven just became a little better, and the golf world one hole short of a course.
Don't forget to check out my new book, "Offsetting Penalties - A PK Frazier Novel" at Amazon.com and listen to me Friday's at 8:40 am EDT/ 7:40 am CDT on Lou in the Morning, streaming live on www.WPFLradio.com, 105.1 FM. I can also be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.