Just a Guy
But so much more...
I was a young man 30-plus years ago, and Arnold Palmer was my age now—late 50s. We were sitting on the veranda at Melbourne's Suntree Country Club, an original stop on what was then called the Senior PGA Tour, which Palmer helped establish. It was just me, some other sportswriters and the King of Golf, who was more interested in flirting with the pretty waitress than he was talking with us. That was Arnie.
Just a guy.
Arnold Palmer first entered my world at the same time I started to understand there was a world around me. In this case it was Shell's Wonderful World of Golf in the early 1960s, flickering into our family room on a black-and-white TV, with my dad telling me (only a few dozen times through the years) that his favorite golfer and his wife were born in the same years as he and my mom—1929 and 1934, respectively. Only one of those four remains—my mom. Winnie Palmer died in 1999, my father in 2007 and Arnold Palmer last Sunday.
This isn't the only connection I've felt with one of the most enduring, and endearing, American icons. Later in the 1960s, we all ended up in Central Florida— my family in Merritt Island and the Palmers at their part-time residence at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Then there was the time, 19 years ago, when my father had a prostate cancer scare, while Palmer actually did have prostate cancer. As part of a fact-finding mission for my dad, I asked Palmer about the procedure he'd chosen. He gave me an expansive answer. That was Arnie.
Just a guy.
Arnold Palmer could've settled anywhere, but he chose Orlando pre-Disney. In 1969, when he bought into Bay Hill as an investor (later to become principal owner) Florida had just one major pro sports team, the Miami Dolphins. Now we have 10; not to mention that eventually both the PGA and the LPGA set up shop in Florida. And unofficially, Orlando is home to more professional golfers per square mile than any other city in the world. Oh, and Palmer also was a founding partner of the Golf Channel, headquartered here. Arnie was the one who flipped the ceremonial switch when the station debuted on January 17, 1995.
None of this seemed probable in the 1960s, when part of Sand Lake Road was literally that—sand. But Arnold Palmer loved Orlando, and loved it enough to leave behind the greatest of all his accomplishments—the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, and later the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. He once told me how the conditions for children alarmed him after touring a local hospital's neonatal unit some 30 years ago. The result is that today, when a child needs medical care, they're taken not to a hospital, per se, but to Arnold Palmer. That's all that needs to be said: We took our child to Arnold Palmer. A name, not an institution. It's that way because that was Arnie.
Just a guy.
Through the years, I was around Palmer numerous times in interview sessions at The Masters and his own tournament, the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he'd do an annual press conference, talking about everything and anything (including what procedure he chose to combat prostate cancer). We called it the State of the Arnie. One year, I got former NFL player Cris Collinsworth's father, Abe, a former Brevard County school superintendent, a credential for Arnie's presser. Afterward, Abe exclaimed, "He's just as down to earth as you always envisioned he'd be." Well, yeah. On Sunday evenings, after his tourney ended, Palmer would quietly enter the media tent with his yellow Labrador, Mulligan, wearing a pastel-colored sweater and a smile, asking if we needed anything. That was Arnie.
Just a guy.
The last time I talked with Arnold Palmer was nearly four years ago in his second-floor office at Bay Hill. It was for a cover story for this magazine about his relationship with his father. He broke down several times talking about his dad, unapologetically wiping away tears, grateful that someone wanted to explore the influence of his father, who died at Bay Hill in 1976, after playing 27 holes on the course. Later, he signed a cover of the magazine for me, doing so in the way he always signed his autograph—legibly. He often said that if someone took the time to ask for your autograph, you should take the time to write it in a way that years later they could look at it and remember who it was. That was Arnie.
Just a guy.
And a giant of a man whom we'll never forget.