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Bacon: Arnold Palmer may have passed, but his legacy lives

Sep 30, 2016

Arnold Palmer was born on the cusp of the Great Depression in Western Pennsylvania. His father, Deke, had been the greens keeper at Latrobe Country Club, advancing to club pro when Arnold was four.

A club pro has to listen to every member of the country club like they’re the most important person in the world. According to John Feinstein’s classic book, A Good Walk Spoiled, that’s a habit Arnold learned, too. Whether he was talking to a young professional, the hundredth fan that day, or, heaven forbid, a reporter, Palmer made eye contact, every time, and made the other person feel like they were a valued friend.

Of course, Palmer was obviously a hell of a golfer. He won his first Master’s tournament in 1958. That happened to be the first year soldiers from nearby Camp Gordon helped run the scoreboard. Palmer’s infectious personality won them over, and “Arnie’s Army” was born.

Palmer won seven major tournaments by 1964. That tied him for third at the time, and 52 years later, he’s still tied for seventh. But that doesn’t tell Palmer’s story. After all, unless you’re a serious fan, you probably haven’t heard of Walter Hagen or Gene Sarazen, who were his equals, but you’ve heard of Arnold Palmer.

When golf was still a sleepy game your grandfather played, Palmer burst on the scene, young, dashing, daring, and even stylish. He was to golf what John F. Kennedy was to politics: something the country had never seen before. Both benefited from another new product: television. 

Palmer wasn’t the best player of all time, or even his era. Jack Nicklaus easily takes that crown, followed by Gary Player. But it was Palmer they called The King – a nickname which put him in a select club with racing’s Richard Petty and Elvis Presley, and that sounds about right.

Palmer was lucky, and he knew it. He was hard to anger, but he grew impatient with younger pros who were irritated by requests for autographs, interviews, or swing tips.

“If you don’t like it,” he said, “don’t walk out the door. Quit. No one is forcing you to do this. I look at my life and all I can do is be thankful for everything I’ve been given, by so many people, over so many years.”

Palmer was so popular, when he once asked for a mixture of iced tea and lemonade, it became known as an “Arnold Palmer.” You can order one today at lunch, and your server, who was not born when Palmer retired, will know exactly what you mean.

Palmer helped create the Senior Tour and the Golf Channel, and revive the British Open. Palmer’s personality was so powerful that, at age 87, his annual income of 40 million dollars a year ranked third among retired athletes, behind only David Beckham and Michael Jordan.

What’s most impressive to me, however, is the reverence fellow professionals felt for him, from Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods to the 23-year old kid just trying to qualify for the next tournament.

When a reporter asked Woods what Palmer meant to golf, he said, “Everything. Are you kidding me? Everyone got hooked on the game of golf because of Arnold.” Personally, Woods added, “He's been one of those people that I could always turn to."

So could the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus. He said, “We loved competing against each other, but we were always great friends along the way. Arnold always had my back, and I had his. We were always there for each other. That never changed."

"He was the king of our sport, and always will be."

John U. Bacon  is the author of four New York Times bestsellers.  His most recent book, "Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football," is on the list now. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.