ORLANDO, FL.—There are few athletes that can lay claim to the tag of “icon.” At 86 years of age, Arnold Palmer has been at the forefront in bringing to life the game of golf to millions worldwide since emerging on the scene in the early 1950’s. Affectionately and rightly called “The King,” Palmer has slowed considerably and this year marks the first time that he did not stage a pre-event press event at his invitational tournament at Bay Hill.
Palmer bought Bay Hill in 1974 and the facility has been hosting an annual professional event since 1979—from 1984 to present the event has become even more prestigious as an invitational event for the world’s finest players.
When the Masters is played in just a few weeks, the four-time champion will not continue to hit a ceremonial tee shot that starts the championship’s play because of a shoulder injury from December 2014. Palmer had been doing the opening tee shot since 2007 and recently been joined by the likes of six-time Masters Champion Jack Nicklaus and three-time winner South African Gary Player.
It is often difficult for those under the age of 50 to really comprehend the magnitude of sports stars who cast their considerable shadows before they were born. Palmer brought golf to life for the masses—took golf out of the stuffy country clubs and made the sport front page news with tales of his epic come-from-behind wins and his equally newsworthy losses. Palmer did not possess the most elegant of swings and his penchant for playing the most daring shots—often when a safer play would have proven more prudent—simply made him more real for the golf masses that reviled in his desire to push the envelope.
Palmer also possessed a modest manner—he did not push himself upon people with a litany of self-glowing adjectives. In growing up in Western Pennsylvania and being the son of a golf professional, Palmer was taught early on that “doing” rather than “talking” was the way to carry oneself. The mark of a lasting champion is not how one carries themselves after winning, but how they handle defeat.
Palmer’s Upbringing Shaped Him
Palmer was taught early on by his father Deacon that being a gentleman was the “only” way to carry oneself. The human quality of Arnold came from such moments—events that were nearly his but for whatever the reason escaped him. In 1962, Palmer nearly won a U.S. Open at Oakmont CC—the venue for this year’s National Championship and nearby to where he grew up in Latrobe—but lost in a playoff to a blossoming 22-year-old golfer named Nicklaus. Five years later, Palmer would be leading the same event—this time a seven-stroke lead with just nine holes to play—and would again lose in a playoff to rival Billy Casper. Palmer did not vacate the premises in a huff in either situation. He was available for all press questions and even though the sting of defeat was clearly etched on his face Arnold showed a resolve to persevere through it all.
It is through such moments that the aura of Arnold Palmer grew to such fantastic heights. In the history of American sports his name joins a very small elite listing of champions that have been able to go far beyond the sport that made them famous.
Palmer played a major role in elevating the PGA Tour into the money colossus it is today. It’s been said numerous times that for every dollar a tour pro earns no less than 20-25 percent should go to Palmer for making that happen. Arnold was also helped enormously by his long time agent Mark McCormack. McCormack branded Palmer in a manner that went far beyond what any other athlete had ever experienced. Through McCormack’s urging Palmer resurrected The Open Championship from being a relic event into one of the game’s most prestigious championships.
A Television Icon
The timing of Palmer’s coming onto the scene was bolstered considerably by the growing presence of television. Past champions such as Bobby Jones and even Ben Hogan and Sam Snead did not have the full impact television provided for Palmer. Golf developed rapidly as a game of the masses through the synergy of television and Arnold Palmer. Golf moved from having chroniclers providing the context—the visual medium of television showed the raw emotions and Palmer was never going to disappoint from the sheer joy in draining a key putt or the clear disappointment in being unable to come through when called upon.
Arnold’s golf exploits were considerable but rivals such as Nicklaus and Player—the core of “golf’s big three”—would ultimately pass him in terms of total major championships won and overall tournament victories worldwide. But, Palmer’s magnitude and affection from sports fans remained unchallenged. Arnold had a charisma few in all of sports has ever attained. A knowing smile and a thumbs up were clear ways in which Palmer forged bonds with people of all ages and races. Women loved the dashing side of his machismo and men wanted to emulate him.
The once-vibrant Palmer has slowed down considerably. His affable manner is still present but his voice does not resonate with the deep strength of earlier years. This week’s event at Bay Hill will ultimately produce a winner but the grand champion is a man who sadly has moved into the shadows. Relish the time we have with this grand man—long live “The King” indeed.
M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.