Arnold Palmer was without peer in the annals of professional golf. He was without peer, but he holds no all-time records. He was the first golfer to win $1 million in one season, but today gofers regularly win more than that in one tournament. Arnie– I’ll call him “Arnie” because it was either “Arnie” or Mr. Palmer. Even though never meeting him, “Arnie” seems right. Arnie does hold one world record, but it isn’t in golf. He flew his jet around the globe in record time. There are golfers who have won more tournaments: Arnie won 62 and the record is 88. Others have won more major tournaments: Arnie won seven–Jack Nicklaus has 18 and Tiger Woods has 14. Sam Snead was praised for his textbook golf swing–it was a thing of balance and beauty. Arnie looked like he was chopping wood with his club in a phone booth.
Why then would the world beat a path to this man’s door over the course of nearly 60 years? He had forearms the size of tree trunks, his trousers were always sagging and needed to be hitched up, by the third hole his shirttail was sticking out of the back of his pants, and by the 10th, his shoes had dirt all over them. And therein lies the reason; he was just like you and me. He was far from perfect. He lost the 1966 U. S. Open to Billy Casper after having a seven-stroke lead going into the last nine holes. Casper beat Arnie by nearly a stroke a hole on the back nine and snatched the prize from him in a playoff. When Arnie did win, it was joyous and when he lost, it was often a flameout because he went for the exciting shot rather than play safe. He saw possibilities and the crowds loved him.
He was a man’s man. My dad and my uncles all thought they were Arnold Palmer. They dressed in his colorful, cardigan sweaters and slashed at the golf ball trying to hole every shot, just like Arnie. He was also a woman’s man. He generated an appeal that women found enchanting. Look up “swashbuckler” in the dictionary and there you’ll find the essence of Arnold Palmer.
Arnie had a bit of luck along the way. Most of all, he was playing just as television became a force. His good looks and his all-or-nothing style of play suited the new medium perfectly. In 1960 he drew the largest crowds at tournaments and television had him on screen as much as possible. It was that year at the Masters tournament that the term “Arnie’s Army” was coined. He charged and the masses charged right behind him.
Tournament players all called him “King”. Due to his draw on television, golf became much more popular and commercial. The purses went from so-so amounts to payoffs that would make many of the players rich beyond their wildest dreams. Arnie, rightfully, got the credit. He got it then and he still gets credit today. Players of the last 50 years all know why they are wealthy and they paid homage on a regular basis.
The biggest loser in this perfect storm was a man 10 years Arnie’s junior. In 1960 Jack Nicklaus came on the scene as a 20-year-old phenom. He had won the U. S. Amateur tournament the year before (Arnie won in 1954) and burst on the professional scene. Jack’s crime was challenging and even beating Arnie. Jack Nicklaus was a skillful player who does hold championship golf records. All along he’s been a wonderful, generous, man of great success, but he was villainized simply because he was the anti-Arnie. Jack is well respected and honored to this day for his work and his personal attributes, but he will always be second to Arnold Palmer.
Arnie’s passing is sad, but not a surprise. We’ve seen him age and fall into poor health over the last years. His last PGA win was 45 years ago–28 years if one counts Senior Tour play. But, we demanded he stay in the public eye. In the last year he could not swing a club any longer and age had caught up with him, but he still obliged his army. His autograph will never be worth six-figures or found in a rare documents sale simply because he signed millions of them over the years. His advice to young players was always sign your name legibly–“It takes time, but the fan took the time to ask you. They deserve it.”
There is no torch to pass. Arnie will always be singular.