Arnold Palmer's undying legacy

Writing from Chicago

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Grill Room Special by Tim Cronin

What Arnold Palmer did better than any athlete before or since, better perhaps than anyone before or since, is make you feel that you and Arnie were the only two people in the room, even if the room was Augusta National and 45,000 people were hanging around to see him.

That personality, that one-on-one sensibility, is what nobody has even been able to match.

Jack Nicklaus won more majors and more tournaments. Tiger Woods won more money than anybody. Ben Hogan hit better shots more often.

Nobody came close to Arnold Daniel Palmer on a golf course when it came to eye contact. Memories flooded back, carried by a river of tears, when word came early Sunday night that Palmer, 87, had died at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the result of complications of heart problems the day before he was to undergo heart surgery.

For instance, 1989 at Kemper Lakes Golf Course, hosting the PGA Championship, the one major that Arnold, a proud professional and the son of a professional, never won. Astoundingly, he birdies the first five holes on Thursday afternoon, which nearly topples the press tent. Now, scribes mused that they wouldn’t have to build a story around Leonard Thompson, a fine fellow but no Arnold Palmer.

His Army reappears, throngs following him. Inspired, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson start making birdies, and it’s not 1989, it’s 1975. Palmer finishes the round with a 4-under-par 68, two off the leaders, Thompson and Mike Reid. Nicklaus shoots 68 as well. Watson shoots 67.

Asked how he old he felt after the round, Arnie said, “Twenty-nine!”

Friday’s play begins, and Palmer is off early. The world greets him on the first tee. Happily, this was not a one day wonder. He continues to play well. (He makes the cut and birdies the last on Sunday, as does Nicklaus.)

What was most striking was his interaction with fans. “Go Arnie” was heard many times more often than “Quiet, please” over the course of the front nine. And unlike the ultra-focused Nicklaus, or later, Woods, he didn’t look through people. He looked at you, right at you, as you were looking at him. And he smiled. He knew you were out there at the fourth tee to see him and knew you wanted to see him at his best. A look, a smile, and then a look down the fairway to see what adventure awaited.

That is how Arnie’s Army was built, one look, one smile at a time, for more than 50 years. That is how golf grew, for the galleries at Augusta National – and Palmer as much as Bob Jones and Cliff Roberts put the Masters on the map – followed him religiously.

Palmer and the image orthicon camera – television’s eye – found each other at Augusta and fell in love with each other, transmitting that ardor to more fans. The sight of Palmer coming over the rise on the 15th hole, where TV coverage of the Masters first began, was golf’s equivalent of Patton leading a charge over an African sand dune. From 1958 on, Palmer became the star of television golf, the engine that got more tournaments on the air. And long after his star had waned as a player, he took the idea of businessman Joe Gibbs – the non-football coach – and backed Golf Channel. Twenty-four hours a day of golf from the man who came to the fore when there wasn’t 24 hours of golf on television in a year.

Along the way, Palmer’s influence – his mere presence – brought the sleepy British Open back to the forefront. He sold anything and everything thanks to agent Mark McCormack, the Chicago-bred marketing genius whose handshake deal with Arnold was the foundation of an empire. When he turned 50, the Senior Tour, as it was first known, began to walk, having crawled waiting for the magic birthday. When the 50-year-old Palmer missed the first United States Senior Open, held at Winged Foot Golf Club, because the USGA imposed its 55-and-up rule from the amateur side, the competition drew galleries in the high dozens.

The rule was changed the next year. Palmer, 51, won the 2nd U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club. Decades later, asked if the rule was changed to get Palmer in the field, Frank Hannigan, the USGA’s executive director in 1981, said, “Isn’t every rule changed for Arnold Palmer?”

Think about it. Palmer’s presence grew one tour to heights unimagined and effectively created another. Anyone in the last 50-plus years who ever played on any American golf tour, including the ladies, owes Arnold Palmer. He put money in everyone’s pocket.

We digress. Fast-forward to 1993, when Palmer is 63 and a ceremonial player at Augusta. But not on Thursday morning, when he birdies the first three holes, his name goes up on the big scoreboards and he stands on the fourth tee as the undisputed leader of the Masters Tournament. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be there, to see the King back on the throne in Camelot, if but for one brief shining moment, will recall it forever.

Now fast-forward to 1997, and Olympia Fields Country Club. Palmer is playing a practice round a couple weeks in advance of the U.S. Senior Open. Olympia member Larry Spalla called a local reporter – your obedient servant – so an exclusive interview could be gotten with Palmer to crown the Daily Southtown’s pre-tournament coverage.

Palmer comes off the 18th, sits down in the lobby for a TV interview, and then I get my turn.

There are a dozen people hanging around, including Sam DiGiovanni, Arnold’s pal for decades, but suddenly, there’s nobody else in the room but us. He gives lively answers, there are some laughs and some serious moments, and some combined. This was not long after his prostate cancer surgery, and a question about his mortality was in order.

Quipped Palmer, “I leave all those questions to Sam.”

It was pitch-perfect Palmer.

Fast-forward once more, to 2013, and the par-3 course at Augusta National. There are more people than Cliff Roberts could count swarming the layout, especially around the first tee, just before 3 p.m. That’s when the Big Three, Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player, will tee off, coinciding with ESPN’s coverage of the biggest little show in golf. Already, those of us in the mob – to quote Jack Whitaker, c. 1965 – have seen Jack Fleck tee off. It was just good to know that at the time he was still with us.

Player is on the tee first, then Nicklaus. Each gets an enormous hand from the gallery. Then up comes Palmer. An ovation, long and heartfelt. And, as it quiets, a women, probably in her 50s, wearing a yellow dress and possessed of a voice as southern as a Waffle House, exclaimed, “My God, it’s Arnold Palmer.” As they say down south, we thought she was going to have an attack of the vapors.

All three hit it toward the green, and nobody particularly cared where the balls landed except the players. As someone else said to his wife a few holes later, turning to make for the exit, “We can go now. I’ve seen who I came to see.”

At the time, Palmer was 83.

What other athlete would have been a draw at 83? Or any year beyond his 50s?

My absent friend Tim Sassone said it perfectly in 1988, when Medinah Country Club hosted the U.S. Senior Open. Arnie entered the interview room for a chat, and someone outside said, “Palmer just walked in.” Sassone said, “Golf just walked in.”

Golf has a void today, matching our broken hearts. There was and will be nobody else like him. Hail and farewell.

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