LUMBERTON — William McGirt has several thoughts when reflecting on Arnold Palmer, the every-man “King” of golf who died on Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Chief among them was Palmer’s ability to be mythic and human all at once.
“I guess that was the most amazing thing about AP,” McGirt said in a Facebook post on Sunday night. “No matter if you had known him for 50 years or 50 seconds, he made you feel like you had been friends for years and that you were the most important person there.”
According to his longtime agent, Alastair Johnston, Palmer died from heart problems. Johnston said Palmer was admitted to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Presbyterian hospital on Thursday for some cardiovascular work and weakened over the past few days. He was 87.
McGirt shared a few of his best memories of the golfing legend via Facebook on Sunday night, including a compliment he received from Palmer before a practice round at the 2011 Arnold Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill.
“My caddie, instructor, and I are trying to get in some work before going out for a practice round,” McGirt said. “I am standing over a putt when I feel a hand on my shoulder. When I look up, it was Mr. Palmer. He looked at me and said, ‘I just wanted to say, thank you.’ I’m thinking to myself, what have I done. He proceeded to tell me that he had just signed something for a fan and he noticed that my signature was the only signature that he could read. I remember looking at him and saying, ‘I remember some old guy saying if you’re gonna take the time to sign it, at least make it legible.’
“He looked at me with a smile and gave me a wink and his signature thumbs up and then he was on his way again. Arnold was the one who made the comment about making your signature legible. That was one of his pet peeves. It still amazes me to this day that The King, Arnold Palmer, came up to thank me. I am thankful that he took the time to say this to me, a rookie that no one had heard of at the time.”
Born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Palmer helped move golf into unprecedented popularity just as television was getting into a majority of American households. He ranked among the most important figures in the sport’s history, going well beyond his seven major championships and 62 PGA Tour wins, which ranks behind only Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan.
Palmer played at least one Tour event every season for 52 consecutive years, ending with the 2004 Masters. He was the Tour Player of the Year in 1960 and 1962. His first professional championship was the 1955 Canadian Open and his final PGA Tour title came in the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic. He also spearheaded the growth of the 50-and-older Champions Tour, winning 10 times and drawing some of the event’s biggest crowds.
“The man meant so much to the game of golf and I’m pretty sure none of us on the PGA Tour would be able to do what we do today if he hadn’t come along before us,” McGirt said. “He was a legend and an icon not only in golf, but in all of sports.”
Beyond the course, Palmer was a pioneer in sports marketing, paving the way for other athletes to reap in millions from endorsements. He was equally successful with golf course design, a wine collection, and apparel that included his famous logo of an umbrella. For non-golf fans, Palmer might be best known for the drink named after him, which is a combination of iced tea and lemonade.
His golf journey started at Wake Forest University, where he captured both the 1949 and 1950 Southern Conference and NCAA individual titles and led his team to three Southern Conference championships.
“No alumnus ever has had a bigger impact on Wake Forest University as an ambassador, role model, benefactor and friend than Arnold Palmer,” Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch said in a statement Monday. “Julie and I will always remember his kindness, his gracious hospitality, his love for golf and its culture of respect and fair play — as well as his love for Wake Forest. He was a true gentleman. Wake Forest University has become synonymous with exceptional golf and that extraordinary reputation began with Arnold Palmer.”
A public memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 4 in Latrobe.
“I’m pleased that I was able to do what I did from a golfing standpoint,” Palmer said in 2008, two years after he played in his last official tournament. “I would like to think that I left them more than just that.”
For McGirt, there’s no doubt Palmer left a lasting impression beyond the course.
“My family and I will miss seeing him at Bay Hill every March,” he said.
“I am so thankful for the opportunity to watch him take (my son) Mac from my arms and sit him on his desk and play with him. I’ll also never forget asking him to take a family picture with him this year. I had (my daughter) Caroline in my arms and the first thing he said after he agreed to take the picture was, ‘Who’s gonna hold this little cutie?’ Before I even had the chance to tell him anything, he took her from my arms and started talking to her.
“These memories will stay with me forever.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley. The Associated Press contributed to this report.