Sunday was going to be golf’s big day, with the crowning of the FedEx Cup champion on the PGA Tour, followed a short time later by the announcement of the last captain’s pick for the U.S. team that will try to return the Ryder Cup to this country when that competition resumes on Friday.
But instead of a day of celebration, it became a day of mourning, not only for golf fans in this country, but sports fans all across the planet, as Arnold Palmer, 87 years old, proved himself mortal by dying.
It was classic Arnie as the cameras turned away from the day’s big events and onto him. Arnie always loved the camera, and the camera loved him equally.
Palmer, more than anyone else in any sport, lifted a game on his shoulders, turning golf into a global spectacle whose popularity rose with him and has declined with his departure. He did so with a cigarette dangling from his lips, a hitch of his trousers, a signature follow through, and a winning smile for Arnie’s Army, who were treated to improbable wins and agonizing defeats.
In nine decades of playing golf, Arnie never did learn how to lay up, and pulling the driver or taking dead aim at a tucked pin was costly more than once. But Palmer was always gracious in defeat, honoring the gentleman’s game he was taught by his dad “Deacon” as a youth in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
Although Palmer was one of the best players of his generation, when it comes to greatest of all-time, he is just outside of the photograph. His 62 PGA Tour wins rank him fifth on that list, his seven major titles a pedestrian seventh — 11 short of rival Jack Nicklaus — and his resume has a double-bogey, no PGA Championship, the fourth major he needed to complete the career grand slam.
But in every other aspect, Arnie was The King of golf, becoming the first golfer to win more than $100,000 in a single year, 1963, hopping from tournament to tournament by flying his own airplane, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood’s elite, and enjoying a round or three with the boys in the bar. He became a pioneer by parlaying his athletic prowess into a business, where he made his first fortune gathering endorsements. Others, including Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, have followed his business model, which includes designing courses.
But Palmer had no equal in his ability to win over the fans, and he used a simple formula: He always made time for his fans, even when he didn’t have the time. He looked them in the eye, he gave them a firm handshake, spoke a few words and signed his name with enough care so that it could be read.
On Tuesday this newspaper shared a story about the legend thanking Fairmont’s own William McGirt at Palmer’s Bay Hill tournament in 2011 for having made his autograph legible, and other stories with a local connection will follow, including Arnie’s friendship with Frank Edens, a Wake Forest teammate who was from Lumberton.
By now you have read or heard story after story about Palmer’s gracious style, how he made the person he was speaking with feel like they were his equal, doing so with a disarming personality that cannot be contrived, and his willingness to give his dollars and name in support of charitable ventures.
But Palmer’s enduring lesson will not be about golf, how to grip the club, position the feet, keep the head down, rotate the shoulders, or chip and putt, though he excelled at them all. Palmer’s lesson to all of us, not just golf fans, is that a simple gesture of kindness can have enormous benefits, to the benefactor but also the extender. We would all do well to follow Palmer’s lead in these trying times.