I was two years old in 1973, the year Arnold Palmer won his last PGA Tour event. I was four in 1975, when Arnie captained the United States to a win in the Ryder Cup. By the time I became a full-blown golf nut in the late 90s, Arnie had already played his final rounds in the US and British Opens – as well as his unconquered nemesis, the PGA Championship – and would soon go around Augusta National one last time. So I rarely watched Arnold Palmer take one meaningful swing in an honest-to-God golf tournament, aside from his ceremonial starter duties, alongside Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, at The Masters.
And yet when I found out he passed away last Sunday at the age of 87, I cried like a baby, and I’m positive I wasn’t alone. The King was gone.
You can’t be a golfer or a sports fan in the United States and not know what Arnold Palmer meant. Not just what he did, what he meant. He was the broad-shouldered Pennsylvania everyman that ripped golf away from the WASPy captains of industry with their Cadillac land yachts and yellow pants, and returned this beautiful game to its blue-collar roots, when humble Scottish herdsmen first took crooked sticks and whacked wee rocks into yonder holes. He made golf matter. He made us watch. He made us care about a man playing golf, even in the most ceremonial of roles, and we hung on every move that man made.
Arnie was us, and we loved him for it.
He was gregarious, he was handsome, he was ludicrously generous, he was emotional without being a club-throwing jerk, he shook every hand and signed every autograph, and he freaking went for it all the time. It started with that swing: a volcanic uppercut ripping through the atmosphere, powerful enough to uproot bushes and send the crummy golf balls of the mid-20th century hurtling 300 yards down the fairway. And that gloriously unfinished finish of his, like he was slicing his way through a rainforest with a rusty corn knife. Arnie’s swing wasn’t perfect like Sam Snead’s, or elegant like Byron Nelson’s, or athletic like Nicklaus’. It screamed “homemade,” and looked like the swings of the weekend hacks down at the local muni. But, by golly, it worked. Arnie and his brawny, rugged, DIY swing won 62 Tour events and seven majors.
Arnie was cool, impeccably dressed, flew his own jet, had a drink named after him, and was name-dropped in Goldfinger, for crying out loud: “If that’s his ball, I’m Arnold Palmer.” I’ve been on this earth for 45.5 years, and I have yet to hear a negative thing said about Arnold Palmer. But one of the regrets of my life is that I missed the Arnold Palmer experience live, on television, or on the course. Everything I’ve seen of the man in his prime is the film of years past: when he charged from behind to win the US Open at Cherry Hills in 1960, and gave a sure victory away on a gut-wrenching Sunday back-nine at Olympic in ’66. The birdie barrage on the final two holes to win The Masters in ’60, and his playoff duel with Nicklaus at the US Open at Oakmont in ’62, when Arnie’s Army tried to intimidate young Jack into submission and lost. As the British like to say, it’s brilliant stuff, watching Arnie play golf.
Arnie. I never met the man, but I call him Arnie. Everybody does. You feel – you felt, my goodness I hate the past tense – like you knew the man as well as you knew yourself. Or there’s his nickname: The King. And it’s not “King Of This” or “King Of That,” it’s just simple. The King. Arnold Palmer is the man responsible for the popularity of modern golf. Every golfer on every tour owes a debt to Arnie and they know it. Before Arnie, The Masters was only covered for the final few holes on live TV. After Arnie, it was a dazzling, green, four-day, made-for-TV event. Nearly every PGA Tour event is carried on TV, a lot of them on another of Arnie’s triumphs, The Golf Channel.
There are hints of Arnie in the appeal of Tiger Woods’ groundbreaking brilliance, and the damn-the-torpedoes style of Phil Mickelson, but neither of those legends fully captures the true essence of the man. And no one ever will. Arnold Palmer was the right man at the right time, a true sports and TV star that catapulted him and the game he loved into the upper reaches of American lore. Arnie’s not a golf icon. He’s a life icon.
Arnold Palmer isn’t the greatest golfer of all time, nor is he my favorite golfer of all time. Jack Nicklaus holds the belt for both of those titles. But he’s the most important golfer in the history of the game, and that’s why I cried when I found out he was gone. You cannot separate golf from Arnold Palmer, and you cannot love the game without loving The King and all he did for golf. You may think it’s a waste of emotion, caring about a famous person you never met, but I love golf, I loved Arnold Palmer, and I will miss him until the day I die.
Thank you, Arnie. You will always be The King. Farewell.