Pull up a chair, young and impressionable golf fans, because you really need to hear this. Arnold Palmer was not a nice old man who sold you a cool soft drink years after he sold your parents and grandparents motor oil and rental cars.
Yes, he was about as neighborly as a worldwide celebrity could ever be. You could easily imagine him lending you his tractor or lawn mower or plowing eight inches of snow from your driveway if you happened to be away on business. But please understand something when you consider the legacy of this late, great 87-year-old man from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, who was always happiest when he was making someone else’s day.
He was a lion long before there was a Tiger. Just like Woods and Michael Jordan and Tom Brady and all the sporting titans defined by their killer game-day instincts, Arnold Palmer was a ferocious competitor driven — like many of us — to prove his manhood to his hard-driving, hard-drinking father, and to prove his worth to the doubters and haters who anticipated nothing more than a life of anonymous mediocrity from the greenkeeper’s son.
Honestly, I once made the mistake of sitting across from Arnold Palmer in his modest office near his modest home off his modest Pennsylvania golf course and expecting to find that kindly figure who shook more hands and signed more autographs than any golfer before him. I was hit from the blind side by the inner rage that drove Palmer to win 62 PGA Tour events, including seven major championships.
He made it painfully obvious that he hated Ben Hogan, and that at times he couldn’t stand Jack Nicklaus, and that he was still angry at Roger Maris for thinking golfers weren’t athletes, and that he felt he got royally screwed by the Royal & Ancient once in his bid to win a calendar year Grand Slam.
More than anything, Palmer made it clear he lived in fear of his old man. Deacon was a functioning alcoholic who dearly loved the oldest of his four children and had a difficult time expressing it. Palmer said he “lived in the shadow of knowing that if I did something wrong, I got my ass kicked. And he never let up.”
When Palmer, a paint salesman, rocked the sport in 1954 by winning the U.S. Amateur over an Oxford-educated blueblood, Robert Sweeny, his father told him, “You did good, boy,” for the very first time. Deacon Palmer did not talk to Arnold about hitting high shots or low shots or fades or draws. Deacon told his son merely to pick out a target, and swing as hard as he could.
Arnold became a star by swinging for the moon. He won his first major at the 1958 Masters, but not before Hogan belittled him in the locker room. Palmer had played poorly in a practice round with Hogan after driving all night from a playoff loss in North Carolina, and with Palmer in earshot, Hogan asked his playing partner Jackie Burke, “How in the hell did he get in the Masters?”
“Pissed me off,” Palmer would tell me. “P-i-s-s-e-d. … Hogan was another one of the goddamn guys on tour as far as I was concerned. He was no big guy. He was no big deal, and I didn’t care what he said. All I wanted to do was beat him, and I did.”
Palmer was also furious that Hogan never referred to him by his first name, that he always called him “fella.” When I mentioned to Palmer that Nicklaus claimed Hogan called everyone “fella,” he mistakenly thought I was referring to Burke, not Nicklaus. “Oh f- – – Jack,” he said. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
In a breathless comeback, Palmer beat Hogan and Nicklaus at the 1960 U.S. Open a couple months after winning his second green jacket. He was going for the third leg of a newfangled Grand Slam he helped create in a conversation with his sportswriting friend, Bob Drum, when storms interrupted a British Open at St. Andrews that he’d lose to Kel Nagle.
Palmer had been credited with restoring the global significance of the Open, with convincing fellow American pros that it was a mandatory stop in their travels, so I expected a diplomatic response when I started to ask about that unprecedented weather stoppage and how much it hurt him.
“In your heart, do you feel that without that rainout,” I started to ask, before he interrupted me and barked, “Yes! The answer to your question is, ‘Yes.’ You don’t think I know what the question is?”
Palmer was telling me he would’ve beaten Nagle and won his third straight major if the Brits had only played through the storms as advertised.
If that 1960 season didn’t win him the Grand Slam, it did earn him the Hickok Belt, then awarded to the professional athlete of the year. Palmer was a finalist along with Maris, the New York Yankees slugger who spotted the golfer at the banquet and said, “What the f- – – are you doing here?”
I asked Palmer how he replied to Maris. “I didn’t say a goddamn word to him,” he said. “I didn’t say a word until after it was all over, and then I didn’t need to say anything.” Palmer had the Hickok Belt in his hands as he walked past Maris. “That’s what my father taught me,” he said. “Don’t say anything, just do it.”
A child of the Great Depression, Palmer was the ultimate doer. He spent his early years in a house with no indoor plumbing on a country club course, watching the rich kids enjoy a world he couldn’t touch, before buying that very country club decades later.
He loved driving his salmon four-door New Yorker, his first brand new car, just as much as he loved flying his Aero Commander and Cessna Citations. He cherished his connection to the mill workers, to the Average Joe who paid to watch him flick away his cigarette and hitch up his pants and attack the golf ball with all of his blue-collar fury. Palmer forever looked like he was fighting a rattlesnake at the top of that homemade swing, and the people couldn’t get enough of it.
The more he made eye contact with the fans, the more they rewarded him with unconditional love. Palmer gave them one last goodbye at the Masters in April, when he arrived on the first tee looking thin and feeble — looking like we never thought Arnold Palmer would. He was too weak to hit a ceremonial tee shot with Nicklaus and Gary Player; in fact his support staff was concerned that Palmer would whiff and fall if he succumbed to Nicklaus’ lobbying efforts and took a whack at it. The sad part, his IMG agent Alastair Johnston, said weeks later, was that “Arnold Palmer loved being Arnold Palmer, and he can’t be that person anymore.” He’d wrecked his shoulder in a fall in December of 2014, starting his physical decline. Palmer had a pacemaker implant, spinal stenosis, oral surgery, a toe infection, hip problems, and other health issues. People close to him fretted constantly over his refusal to use a cane or a walker, and estimated he’d fallen as many as two dozen times. Palmer finally agreed to a live-in nurse, and he stunned his regular golfing partners in Latrobe in recent months by hitting a few buckets of range balls — without much of a back swing, and without much distance to show for it. I saw him for the last time at his club in June, before the U.S. Open at nearby Oakmont, being helped into a golf cart over near the swimming pool. His friends and associates were already preparing for the worst at that point, and it didn’t matter: Sunday’s news of Palmer’s death hit them harder than they ever expected.
Palmer’s aide for a half century, Doc Giffin, said he was “so heartbroken about it. … My life was Arnold Palmer, and it’s just going to be so different without him around.” Two longtime friends, Bob Florio and Howdy Giles, were crying on the phone Sunday night as they remembered the King of all golf kings.
Florio had seen Palmer last week for a fundraiser outing. He rode in a cart with Palmer for two and a half hours, visiting this foursome and that foursome, before they retreated to the King’s office.
“Before Arnold fell asleep,” Florio recalled, “and this is a perfect Palmer line, he asked me what time he needed to be at our reception. I told him he didn’t need to go and he said, ‘Goddamnit, I didn’t ask you if I needed to go or not. I asked you when I needed to be there.’ So I told him 5:45 p.m. And you know what, at 5:45 that freakin’ door opened and there was Arnold Palmer. It didn’t matter that one of his guys had to practically carry him up the stairs. If Arnold Palmer said he was going to be there, he was there.”
He died in the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian while waiting for what Giffin said was a heart-related surgery scheduled for Monday. Palmer will be rightfully remembered for his generosity of spirit, and for his impact as one of America’s first glamorous sports stars on TV.
But fame and fortune did not drive this poor boy to unimagined heights.
“I wanted to win,” he told me, “and I wanted to win out of desperation as much as anything else. I wanted to be successful and win golf tournaments, and I didn’t think about all the luxurious royalties and all the accolades and the nice things that would happen. I went out on the tour and I wanted to prove something. If there was a major thing I wanted to do, it was I wanted to prove to my father that I could play the tour and win.”
So just remember that, young golf fans, when your unborn children and grandchildren ask you someday about Arnold Daniel Palmer. Don’t just tell them he was a nice old man who was quick with a smile and a legible autograph.
Tell them he was a lion who roared long before Tiger’s time.