Arnold Palmer was everywhere around our golf shop in the late 1970s and early 80s. You could find his name and umbrella logo stamped on clubs, shirts, hats. When the tournament came on TV in the afternoon, there he was again, smiling as he rode up on a tractor or pitched a certain brand of rental car. As he walked the fairways, his days on the leaderboard had come and gone, but the fans still cheered.
Throughout our great state of North Carolina, his legend was greater still. People talked about walking beside him in Greensboro, having a beer with him in Pinehurst, watching him escape the trees one more time in Augusta. Golfers arrived from Charlotte driving a Cadillac they bought at Arnie’s dealership, which was number one in the nation in sales, of course. In business, his touch never wavered.
Wake Forest, a small Baptist college, has always been on the bottom rung in the “Big Four,” but Arnie alone turned it into a national golf power, paving the way for Wadkins, Strange, Haas, Simpson and the rest. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about the time they shook hands with Arnold Palmer.
Mine comes in the Southern California desert, 1998. I was caddying for the veteran professional Larry Rinker in the Bob Hope Classic. We needed a spot to hit balls on the practice tee at PGA West’s Palmer Course, which was one of four courses in the tournament rotation. There was space open next to a white-haired man who had at least 10 drivers lined up, leaning against his golf bag. He’d pick one up, give it a waggle, make his familiar slashing swing, watch the ball, give the club another look, maybe hit another shot or two with it, then move on to the next one.
He was pushing 70 years old, virile not frail. Looked strong enough to wrestle a mountain lion to the ground if one was stupid enough to come down into the Coachella Valley and take him on.
I shook his hand. It was big and strong. Arnie started banging drivers again. Jay Haas sidled up to watch and started telling this story. Sometime in the mid-70s, when Haas was fresh out of college at Wake Forest, he and Palmer played in the same corporate outing or exhibition. The host hotel messed up Haas’ reservation and he didn’t have a room. When Arnie heard about his fellow Demon Deacon’s fate, he told Haas he could sleep in the extra bed in his room for the night.
So, Haas told the story from the perspective of a 23-year-old rookie pro rooming with a legend he adored. Palmer laughed at the memory of two grown men sharing a room on the road.
“Hey Arnold, do you still carry that wrench with you, so you can adjust the shower head?,” Haas asked.
“Damn right boy,” Palmer replied. “I’ve got to have some water when I shower.”
Other business travelers might face a weak, drizzly shower on occasion, but not Palmer, the pilot, the professional, the philanthropist, the friend to us all. He was prepared.
Sometime later we played with Peter Jacobsen, one of many pro golfers Palmer mentored. Jake recalled a function early in his career where he and Arnie had to sign hundreds of autographs to benefit a charity.
Arnie caught Jacobsen scribbling his way through a batch, stopped him and told him very clearly: “Take your time and sign your name where people can read it.”
Jake discussed the dozens of other pointers Arnie had shared – from thanking tournament hosts to leaving the courtesy car clean. There was one way to operate as it pertained to carrying yourself and treating people. Being a professional went well beyond busting 300-yard drives and collecting trophies.
About a decade ago, I was a staff writer at the Wilmington (NC) StarNews. The Carolinas Golf Hall of Fame sent an email announcing Palmer’s induction. The tone was embarrassment. How could such a hall exist and The King not be included? Regardless, Arnie was going to be in Pinehurst and there was media access. Because he had been a regular participant in Wilmington’s PGA Tour stop, the Azalea Open, winning in 1957, there was a local angle to pursue.
We gathered in a conference room in the Carolina Hotel, probably two dozen media types. Arnie, pushing 80, arrived on time, answered our questions and gave us more than we could’ve asked for, like always. After asking him a question about Wake Forest during the Q-and-A, I waited to discuss his longtime friendship with a Wilmington area family. He answered politely, although in hindsight my shaggy hair and scruffy beard might have cut our time short. A Coast Guard man from a Steel City believes in shorn and shaved.
Two years ago, I was in the Bay Area of northern California caddying for Albin Choi in a Web.com Tour event. We were paired with Arnie’s grandson Sam Saunders during the first two rounds. Our gallery consisted of a walking scorer, a standard bearer and a hippy who didn’t seem too concerned with the golf. The scene couldn’t have been further from what his grandfather experienced each time he played.
There wasn’t much small talk that day. But on one hole, there was a break as the third member of the group waited for a rules official to arrive. I asked Saunders how his grandfather was doing and told him I appreciated any chance I’d had to be around him.
Saunders said thanks and smiled. I knew he’d heard those words a million times before.
He was the coolest golfer ever. Nobody could possibly do more for golf than Palmer did during the last 70 years. He left us hundreds of courses to play, tournament highlights to watch, books and articles to read.
If ever there was one.